Sunday, August 2, 2009

NYT's Ombudsman Dissects How So Many Mistakes Got Into Cronkite Story

We're all human, and journalists make mistakes every day. But The New York Times' ombudsman Clark Hoyt gave us a rundown this weekend on how so many mistakes went into its story on Walter Cronkite.

Pulling no punches, Hoyt took to task a reporter with a history of making errors, and editors who not only did not catch them, but introduce their own error into the story during the editing process.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Here is the original correction that ran on July 22:

An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

For her part, Stanley took the blame and apologized for her sloppy reporting:
On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

Reporting and desk work are high-pressure jobs. You can get 99 facts fixed and no one on the planet will notice or thank you. Miss one, and you're sitting through an uncomfortable conversation with your boss the next day. And heaven's knows, I have made some beauties in my day. But readers should expect to see more problems such as these in the future, as newspapers as big as The New York Times and as small as your local Merchandiser trim staffs left and right to cut spending.

With reporters doubling up on stories nightly, and editors and copy editors plowing through 5,000 words or more per shift, we will undoubtedly see more of this in the future.

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