Newspapers constantly call for more vigilance and transparency in government and other institutions, but in the one realm over which they have total control—their pages—they have failed their own test, according to a study of 600 corrections from 70 newspapers conducted by Michael Bugeja and Jane Peterson of Iowa State University. In fact, if editors confessed to everything that was wrong in their news columns, they would have to devote 50 times more space each day to corrections, says Jack Shafer, editor at large of Slate.
Moreover, published corrections, as highlighted on the website Regret the Error, maintained by Canadian freelance writer Craig Silverman, were themselves often full of blunders. Only 30 percent specified when the error happened, very few described how it occurred, and virtually none suggested what the paper was going to do to prevent future occurrences, according to Bugeja and Peterson, director and associate director, respectively, of the journalism school at Iowa State. A 1986 study found many of the same problems.
Shafer writes that Scott R. Maier, who teaches journalism at the University of Oregon, sent accuracy questionnaires to major sources noted in 3,600 articles in newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Mercury News of San Jose, and The Tallahassee Democrat. Roughly 70 percent of the recipients completed the survey. They spotted 2,615 factual errors in the stories for which they served as sources. No paper corrected more than 4.2 percent of its flawed articles. Maier reports that when 130 of the sources he queried asked for corrections, only four were published.
Even if some of the errors were relatively minor, such as a wrong age or title, or were out of the newspaper’s control (such as faulty information from sources other than those evaluating the facts), the results are shocking to even the “most jaded” of newspaper readers, Shafer writes. And worse than the papers’ sloppiness is the cover-up they perpetrate on a daily basis.
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The Source: "How Complete Are Newspaper Corrections?: An Analysis of the 2005 'Regret the Error' Compilation" by Michael Bugeja and Jane Peterson, in Media Ethics, Spring 2007, and "Reign of Error" by Jack Shafer, in Slate, August 15, 2007.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Tobi Gaulke