The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Tuesday, July 12, 2005
Number and numbers in reporting
Journalism is all about editing, framing, manipulation, inclusion and omission. There is absolutely nothing straightforward about it. It is not flat glass, it's a hall of mirrors.
And that, with the best will in the world: most readers have long concluded that the US (or any other) media does not have the best will in the world.
Some issues are hard to get a handle on: fairly evaluating the extent of USG coercion on media product down the decades, for instance, is a job of work.
Others are easier to handle.
For instance, the characterisation of the number of sources on which an allegation is being based.
Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, for instance, together with the editors on the job (if they were paying attention), misled readers of his infamous Periscope column into thinking that there was more than one source for the allegation that there was to be an official acknowledgement in a Southcom report of that a Koran had been flushed down the bog at Guantanamo .
It's not an isolated incident.
Michael Getler, Post ombud, refers to
a front-page story July 4 by reporters Charles Babington and Susan Schmidt that began, "Democrats' hopes of blocking a staunchly conservative Supreme Court nominee on ideological grounds could be seriously undermined by the six-week-old bipartisan deal on judicial nominees, key senators said yesterday."
There was only senator. The other , that was supposed to justify the plural, spoke with studied ambiguity.
Another example: the Cleveland Plain Dealer got a hoo-ha going with its decision not to print a stories based on the leak of confidential information. Chocolate soldiers emerged from their editorial funk-holes to deride the PD's cowardice in the face of Patrick Fitzgerald.
And who should be in the van but that journalistic City on a Hill , who headlined a piece by David Cay Johnston Most Editors Say They'd Publish Articles Based on Leaks.
The PD did the work that the Times copy editor, presumably in a state of self-induced tumescence at the time, had failed to do: it counted the number of editors making the allegation.
On the most generous reading, there were four of them. Out of how many thousands in the US? How can that be most? You might well ask.
PD editor Doug Clifton wrote to new Times ombud, Byron Calame, to make the point.
No sign of any reply yet in the ombud kinda-sorta blog.
Takeaway message: if readers can't even trust the media
Note also, this piece in the Carolina Journal - I don't know it - makes a valid point in its dek: Errors in news stories need more explanation than simple corrections.
It highlights two cases which have to be worse than those discussed above because mere negligence is negatived. One concerns an AP story in which Blair was said to have mentioned the Israel/Palestine problem in connection with global terrorism.
He had every reason to have done so. But he hadn't. No explanation from the AP, just an apology.
And a New York Times Editors' Note about an op-ed:
The writer, an Army reserve officer, did not say, "Imagine my surprise the other day when I received orders to report to Fort Campbell, Ky., next Sunday," nor did he characterize his recent call-up to active duty as the precursor to a "surprise tour of Iraq." That language was added by an editor and was to have been removed before the article was published. Because of a production error, it was not. The Times regrets the error.
A test for 'Barney' Calame.
MORE (July 19)
Calame has provided an explanation amounting to a shaggy dog story. Apparently a genuine chapter of accidents. Case closed.
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