One of the more remarkable aspects of the Jayson Blair episode is why so few people misrepresented in his reports actually complained to the New York Times. In a story he first reported last summer, On the Media's John Solomon looks at the industry's mixed record in dealing with its own goofs.
JOHN SOLOMON: The first time the average person realizes how many errors there are in the newspaper is usually when they read a story about a topic they know very well. That was no different for the editor of the nation's largest newspaper.
KAREN JURGENSEN: Virtually every story that was written about me when I took over as editor of USA Today had an error in it, and the track record hasn't changed much.
JOHN SOLOMON: Editor in Chief Karen Jurgensen.
KAREN JURGENSEN: I was surprised and disheartened by that and it made me think if I see errors, readers see them as well.
JOHN SOLOMON: She's not wrong about that. A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press last summer found that 56 percent of the public think news organizations usually report inaccurately. That perception appears to be reality. Studies have continually shown that about half of all stories have an error in them. The newest analysis, an academic survey of news sources of the Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer found that 59 percent of the articles printed in early 1999 had at least one mistake. Obviously the first draft of history is not going to be perfect. Between spellings, statistics and precise quotations, hundreds of facts go into every story, usually written by human beings on deadline. While many errors are understandable, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says they shouldn't all be acceptable.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: The problem with accuracy is not that we get names misspelled, but it's what inaccuracies say to the public about the press, and they say that maybe we're slipshod in general --that we're not entirely trustworthy as a profession, not because there are inaccuracies per se, but because we just don't seem to worry about this stuff.
JOHN SOLOMON: There are signs that the press is beginning to worry. After her own experience, Jurgensen created an error reduction program at USA Today, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors launched its own initiative to bring attention to the problem. Practically every other American manufacturing business long ago underwent comprehensive anti-defect quality control programs. The media, by and large, have not gone through the same kind of re-engineering. But it appears change may be on the way in some places. Karen Jurgensen.
KAREN JURGENSEN: We had an editor one day look at some of this material and say you know, some of these are the kinds of things that would involve a reporter taking the last five minutes of an interview and just saying now let me go over these facts again. Let's go over the spelling of your name again. [LAUGHS] Let's go over your age again. Some fairly basic things like that.
JOHN SOLOMON: The news organization which has addressed the error problem most extensively is the Chicago Tribune. It hired a retired editor to carefully review the paper for mistakes and then began tracking all errors by category. That immediately addressed some re-occurring trouble spots according to Margaret Holt, the Tribune's customer service editor who manages the paper's quality control program. For example, in obituaries--
MARGARET HOLT: One year we found that something like two thirds of all the errors involved mistakes in either the time of the memorial service, the name of the deceased or the survivors or the date of the memorial service.
JOHN SOLOMON: Now each section of the paper receives a quarterly error report with results and any problematic trends. The highly quantitative analysis is key, says Holt, because what gets measured ultimately gets managed.
MARGARET HOLT: Numbers make it easier for people to visualize what the issues are that you're talking about. That's much more effective than being able to say golly, shucks, darn - we need to do a better job - and we've got to stop making these stupid mistakes.
JOHN SOLOMON: Another Pew survey revealed that in the eyes of the public, inaccuracy is second only to bias as a reason to distrust the press, and bias actually may be more a problem of accuracy than ideology. In fact, when news sources were polled in the study of the News & Observer, those who complained about bias usually blamed process more than politics. University of Oregon journalism professor Scott Maier authored the study which was published in the Newspaper Research Journal.
SCOTT MAIER: I don't think they saw it as a political bias or agenda-setting but rather that the reporter just didn't take the time to put that story in context and to be fair and to present all points of view.
JOHN SOLOMON: If the media really want to reduce errors, argues Maier, they have to be less passive about locating them. Of the 262 sources he surveyed who reported finding mistakes in News & Observer stories, only one percent said they actually contacted the paper afterwards to point them out. Some didn't know who to speak to; others did not believe that anyone would pay attention. But, says Maier, that kind of feedback would be constructive for the papers themselves. It is long overdue that the media view corrections as less a threat to their credibility than an opportunity to improve their product. For On the Media, this is John Solomon.