Getting Things Wrong

Getting Things Wrong

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Sunday, January 6, 2013: After a disastrous 2012, you’d think the media would have made one of its chief New Year’s resolutions the modest goal of getting things right when stories break.

But, alas, the year had already started out with errors aplenty, including today’s news that the oldest living American citizen has died at the age of 114, a South Carolina woman named Mamie Edgefield who had recently suffered a fall resulting in a broken hip. Associated Press articles posted widely on the internet show a photo of a white-haired, faired-skinned Caucasian woman in the stories, but the same reports (and similar posts) on AOL and Huffington Post show images and videos of an African-American woman instead—with the same name, same family members and exact same circumstances. Oops.

Emails sent in response to those who noticed the discrepancy contained the explanation that the Caucasian woman in the photo is actually the world record-holder, a woman who is said to be currently 115 years old. The only problem is that that person is Jiroemon Kimura, a Japanese woman who clearly bears no resemblance to the photos or videos of the black woman or the white woman posted in the various articles. As of 12:30 p.m. on Sunday there had been no apparent attempts to correct the discrepancy between the two disparate images.

The pattern is familiar and has become almost a trade fact over the last 12 months. In the commercial pressure to report news quickly—and in some cases first—news organizations have dramatically reduced or eliminated the standards once regarded as core to the journalism profession: accuracy and veracity. The past year alone saw cases of plagiarism and “laziness” so frequent that the phenomena became old news by the end of the year. From Fareed Zakaria’s lifting of entire passages from the New York Times to writer Joe Milliken’s reports on sports events in New England which he never attended, to ABC News and Brian Ross’s misidentification of the Colorado shooter James Holmes as being a Tea Partier, to ESPN’s frequent lifting of passages directly from Wikipedia, it was an astonishingly bad year for the media.

Topping it off were the innumerable misfires and misidentifications associated with the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut—so many, and with such surreal emotional results—that the entire town more-or-less insisted that all media contingents leave the area at once in a kind of unanimous cease-and-desist action.  But the real trophy apparently goes to science and medicine writer Jonah Lehrer, who was outed last year for what now appears to be dozens of cases of outright plagiarism, as well as many instances of lesser journalistic infractions--from "recycling" (the lazy process of using ones own writing again and again without significant change or modification), to verbatim copying from press releases (a fuzzy area for some journalists since press releases are, after all, meant to be copied, albeit with careful detachment and declaration of the source), to inadequate citations and questionable quotations.

None of the major news organizations escaped the blowback: NBC News for fabricating material meant to make George Zimmerman look like the antagonist, Fox News for falsifying material to make Trayvon Martin into the public menace; ABC News for its shocking foul-ups in the Colorado shootings; CNN for claiming Ronald Reagan had beaten Jimmy Carter in the election of 1976 (I saw that whopper live); The Weather Channel for calling Puerto Rico “the island nation”; and a variety of news sources for their wild overreaches in the David Petreaus/Paula Broadwell scandals and a lack of closer journalistic scrutiny as events unfolded in the terror attacks in Benghazi. The vast majority of media sources jumped unquestioningly on the bandwagon set rolling by the administration—that the attacks were largely inflamed by an amateurish anti-Islamic movie trailer posted on the internet. This blind, lemming-like process may have inadvertently given the terror groups cover, and provided misdirection at all levels of official and back channel response to the violence, which briefly spilled over into other cities in other Muslim countries.

So despite the late Mamie Edgefield's apparent doppelganger, maybe 2013 will be a better year for journalistic accuracy and ethics.