BOB: Before we rush intrepidly into 2015, with big hopes and dreams about the new year in media, lets take stock of how journalism fared in the year we’ve just left behind us. As always, Craig Silverman, author of the “Regret the Error” blog on Poynter, joins us for a roundup of 12 months of reporting screw-ups. The particulars are always amusing, in a depressing sort of way. The underlying carelessness (and worse) is timeless and immutable -- in a very depressing sort of way. Craig, welcome back to the show.
SILVERMAN: Thank you.
BOB: As usual, you have a correction of the year.
SILVERMAN: And what a correction of the year it is. It combines some wonderful elements: Kanye West and his wife Kim Kardashian; both of their butts. So, here is the correction of the year: 'An earlier version of this column was published in error. That version included what purported to be an interview that Kanye West gave to a Chicago radio station in which he compared his own derriere to that of his wife, Kim Kardashian. Mr. West's quotes were taken, without attribution, from the satirical website 'The Daily Current.' There is no radio station WGYN in Chicago. The interview was fictitious and should not have been included in the column.'
BOB: OK, now we constantly see these stories that are plucked from the Daily Current or The Onion or something showing up in Russia Today or the China state news agency as actual news. The source of this correction, Craig?
SILVERMAN: Oh, this was in The New York Times.
BOB: [Laughs] I think we should call out NPR for a mistake that is notable. Would you care to share?
SILVERMAN: Sure. So here's the correction from NPR, 'An earlier version of this story said that the methane emissions associated with live stock come from their farts. In fact, most of those methane emissions come from belches.'
BOB: You gotta credit NPR and The New York Times and other news organizations of quality for owning up to mistakes no matter how silly.
SILVERMAN: It's kind of a paradox in some ways in that you're more likely to be trusted the more willing you are to point out all the things you screw up. In fact there's a study done back in the 1990s by what was The American Society of Newspaper Editors at the time--it found that a majority of people felt much better when they saw corrections in newspapers because they saw that there was some kind of accountability in place.
BOB: Now you have a category this year that you call 'Watchdog of the Year' and it's particularly interesting to us at On the Media. Because it refers to something we thought about covering and ultimately did not. And we didn't because we weren't comfortable with the sourcing. The underlying story is whether or not Fareed Zakaria of CNN and elsewhere is a plagiarist, an accusation that was floated a couple years back and kind of semi-apologized for. But it did not disappear.
SILVERMAN: Well I think it disappered in terms of the news outlets that publish his work and employ him. But it didn't disappear for two people who go by pseudonyms: Blippo Blappo and Crushing Bort. These are two people who have a blog called 'Our Bad Media' and for some reason after everything died down about Zakaria they decided to go back and look at this work. He had been cleared by the Washington Post. He had received a little bit of a suspension from his employers at the time and then he was back at work on CNN and elsewhere. And what they found was that in spite of the fact that these news organization said they didn't really find any additional examples of plagiarism, they very easily did.
BOB: By the very sophisticated technique of taking passages from Zakaria and googling them to see if they got other hits.
SILVERMAN: They exposed that these news organizations did a very inadequate job of reviewing Zakaria's previous work and they kept going back to the well not only for his work writing for Newsweek and Time and The Washington Post - but they looked at some of his transcripts from CNN. They looked at some of his books and brought up really troubling stuff in those as well.
BOB: On the Media finally decided as much as we wag our scolding fingers at the overuse of anonymous sources, especially political stories, that we did not want to depend on anonymous watchdogs to go into the Zakaria allegations, and I guess you think that we blew that one, huh?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, I guess I'll say that. I do think there's a difference between anonymous sources and pseudonymous sources. So, these two people, they're on Twitter and they're active. You can talk with them, you can interact with them. They have a dedicated blog where they're putting up the material and you can go and check for yourself. So I don't know what more we really need to ask for in order to take it seriously.
BOB: Well, I think we did make a mistake and I apologize. And on the subject of apologies let's talk about one from the online magazine io9. You call it a textbook example of how a top level editor should handle a major mistake.
SILVERMAN: They had a story focused on animal welfare in research experiments. The site's editor is Annalee Newitz. And in her very frank post about it - here's how it starts: "On Wednesday we published an article about animal welfare in research experiments. It was biased, factually incorrect and should not have appeared on io9 in that form. As io9's editor-in-chief I'm the one who screwed up and I'm sorry. Here's how this mess happened and what we're doing about it."
BOB: I'm interested in it mainly because of what another news organization did not do after reporting that was biased, factually incorrect, and shouldn't have appeared in any form. And I refer of course to the infamous Rolling Stone campus rape story which you say is the 2014 Error of the Year.
SILVERMAN: The story is that a student at the University of Virginia says that she was gang raped while at a party being run by a campus frat. Rolling Stone had a reporter who was looking to write about rape on campus and so as she described later to Slate in a podcast she went looking to different campuses to find the right victim, the right account to really symbolize what's going on with rape on campus. It seems from that moment forward she was inclined to really take anything that made the school and and the incident look really bad and frats look really bad and not really dig-in to get the truth of the story. And to be clear about this, I'm not saying the rape didn't happen - I don't think we actually know what happened. And that's the problem. Rolling Stone ran a really large feature story and yet the reporter didn't interview the people who are accused and also quoted friends of the victim verbatim even though she didn't even interview them. And so after The Washington Post dug into the story it became clear that Rolling Stone really played up a story that they didn't have the goods on.
BOB: Causing endless damage not only to the reputation of Rolling Stone and the University of Virginia and the particular fraternity - but to all women who subsequently discuss their rapes and now have to deal with public skepticism about their very, very real horrors.
SILVERMAN: Yeah, I mean you could argue that Rolling Stone had confirmation bias to try to find the worst possible story to really make people care about this. But the way that they handled it has now given critics a way to minimize rape on campus. It's had the exact opposite effect from what they wanted.
BOB: And the editors of Rolling Stone did what?
SILVERMAN: Initially they blamed the victim. They said that their trust in her was misplaced. So instead of taking responsibility they kind of put it on her. On top of that they didn't share any details about how the story was reported. And they didn't say anything about what they were really planning to do about it.
BOB: So once again, Craig, you haven't proven me a liar. As promised in the introduction - it's pretty depressing.
SILVERMAN: Yeah. It's often a depressing round-up to put together, with the exception of some really enjoyable corrections where you see news organization embracing their errors. But hopefully they read it, then it's a little bit of a roadmap of things they won't do in the coming year.
BOB: Alright, man. With some trepidation I say - I'll talk to you again next year.
SILVERMAN: Thanks and hope to see you in the post next year.
BOB: [Laughs] You mean in your post?
BOB: I so don't. Craig Silverman writes the Regret the Error blog at Poynter.com where you can find the rest of his annual round-up of the year's media errors.