Educating Citizen Journalists: Do Errors Damage the News Itself?

Recently, at a2ethics.org, we have been trying to get a better understanding and awareness about errors, that is the mistakes, inaccurate statements and goofs we make in the process of writing our wide-ranging musings on things both ethical and unethical in the world around us. All in the interest and for the purposes of establishing a more concrete errors policy for this website, for civic ethicists on staff and visitors as well as for our organization.

In our research, which has been more airgun than shotgun, we have gone far afield looking into other professions besides the media. 

In doing so, we have come across some sobering facts about errors. One example: military errors. Mistakes in communicating orders to soldiers in wartime are especially serious.Though we use many euphemisms in war to make its horror, less horrifying to the soldiers fighting it, being killed by “friendly fire” is one euphemism that tells us not only that a soldier was killed by his or her own side, it also tells us such a deadly incident was unintentional. And most of all, it reveals to us that it was a screw-up, a mistake and an error.  With the worst consequences. 

Questions of error that we deal with at a2ethics.org are not as deadly, their consequences not as final. Even so, errors are an everyday occurrence in the media and can cause harm. 

While some experts and not-so-experts like to point fingers  at the relatively new “news” technologies, from YouTube to Twitter, and criticize bloggers as particularly loose and lax about facts and figures, from what we have found so far, the traditional media have been wrestling with their error-proneness for a very long time. 

Even if the newspaper industry as we know it seems to have pushed both the delete and erase buttons on themselves as common news deliverers for some citizens, the newspaper industry (their death notices are premature in my opinion) and journalists in particular, still have much to teach us about the prevalence of errors and how we might ask questions about the ethics of errors in our work and perhaps in other arenas.     

Consider a few statistics. 

According to a 2002 interview transcript on newspaper errors led by the principals at the nonprofit online media business blog, On The Media:

“One out of two stories in your daily newspaper and for that matter in this show probably will likely contain some type of mistake. It may be relatively small--a grammar error or misspelled name--or something more serious such as incorrect or out of context quotation.”

“Studies have continually shown that about half of all stories have an error in them. The newest study, a recently published 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 spelling, statistics and precise quotations, hundred of facts go into every story, usually written by human beings on deadline.” 

[Please note: More studies have been done since this 1999 report, but the error percentages, hovering around 50 percent, remain the same at least from our reading so far.]

So what does this mean from an ethics vantage point?

To me, it means that it is at least possible for us to welcome the democratization of news reporting by amateurs (myself included) as a way to decrease the number of errors we encounter in our news. And if this happens that would be a good thing.

To get to this point, however, a vastly different kind of news reporting education and training is required. For everyone. This new education must take into account what errors and mistakes in creating our 'first drafts of history' we are willing to accept in our communities and which ones we think are ethical lapses and violations that should lead to sanctions. First, however, we need to find out what those levels of acceptance for errors are.   

One way to get an idea of this is to offer a fictional case study. 

To keep it simple we can offer up three different versions and visions of how news should be reported, with the clear notion that what we are trying to do is to cut down on errors in our reporting that can lead to serious harm, not only to the people we are reporting about, the event we are covering, but most importantly, in this case, on the credibility of the news itself. 

In each of these clearly fictional scenarios below, ask yourself these two questions: 

1. What were the major errors committed by the reporter in each version? 

2. Of these errors, which ones in your view, have the worst impact on the credibility and integrity of the news itself?  

Two famous reporters, and one reporting team, are all assigned to cover the recent 2009 Tour de France, the premiere professional bicycle race that ended July 26th. The winner was Spanish rider Alberto Contador. The seven times Tour winner and cancer research advocate, Lance Armstrong staged his second comeback, the first being his return after a resolute battle with cancer, and his second comeback to the Tour this year, after an almost four year retirement. Armstrong was third at the end of the event.   

The reporters are:  the late Hunter S. Thompson, the late Walter Cronkite and the American cable channel Versus reporting team of bicycling insiders, including former Tour and professional bicycle riders. (Please note: though they are now dead, it would not have been completely impossible for either Cronkite or Thompson to cover a sporting event. Cronkite, after all, was a reporter at the 1960 Winter Olympics, and Thompson’s first assignment was to cover the Kentucky Derby. Both, however, would be considered outsiders in reporting on the Tour de France.)  

1. The late Hunter S. Thompson, the gonzo journalist known for his heavy drinking and drug-taking, his put-me-in-the-story persona, not to mention his grand truthlike fictions, covers the 3 week event, which includes a stage in Monaco as an opportunity to visit as many casinos, wine cellars and pleasure fortresses and chateaux as possible. He does not actually watch any of the stages, but instead talks to many of the people sitting in the cafes and living in the villages on the route. They know a great deal about bicycling and about France. He drinks it all up. 

Instead of concentrating on Lance Armstrong, the most well- known of the Tour riders in America, and a person who has become larger than life himself for his alleged but never proven doping,  put-me-in-the-story persona, as well as his good deeds as a cancer research philanthropist and educator, he focuses on other riders, among them, the eventual winner of the Tour, Spanish rider Alberto Contador. He also talks to support riders, not to mention the helicopter pilots who follow the Tour and the florists who provide the flowers the winners often throw from the podium into the crowd at the end of each stage. He is not interested in who wins the stage each day, and rarely reports on who has the most points.

Since he has learned the Tour riders have great physical skills and has heard from his cafe friends about riders’ incredible resilience in overcoming adversity, and that several of them will undoubtedly crash and be hurt during the three week event, he writes that on one of the stages, a rider crashed into a bridge, flipped over it and fell at least 100 feet into the water below, only to swim to the bank, clamber back up the hill and get a new bike waiting for him near the bridge, courtesy of the mechanics in the team car. 

When the editors tell him this incident did not in fact happen, Thompson responds with a column about the courage of the riders who have crashed on the Tour and in Tours past and how they seem to be able to overcome almost any terrible crash, including falls from incredible heights, not to mention illness, even cancer that has gone from the testicles to the brain.

And when the editors begin to complain about the bills from suspicious-sounding medical supply companies Thompson is racking up as the Tour gets closer to Paris, he writes back: “Have you noticed there are no reported cases of drug-taking on this Tour? No drug raids on team cars? Only trips to the bathroom by riders for their drugs tests. Where have all the drugs gone??? Think about it. You should be glad I am here and on this story. I have probably single-handedly helped the Tour de France get back its good name.”

2. The late Walter Cronkite was a legend and an exemplar of news reporting during the days when what journalists reported on, even the news reported by TV journalists, was considered by most as truthworthy. And as most people know, Cronkite was regarded not only as a most trusted reporter, but at one time as "the most trusted man in America." On his arrival in Monaco for the Tour de France, Cronkite makes sure he gets a few interpreters so he can talk to several of the riders from each of the 20  international teams qualified for the Tour. He knows several of the riders do not speak English, and he has read as much as possible about the history of France, of the Tour and of professional bicycling. Each day, Cronkite goes to the start and travels to the finish so he can witness them for himself. He interviews the director of the Tour and the Cycling Union as well as several of the French cycling officials, the team directors of each team and talks with several experts on bicycles, none of whom is affiliated with any of the bicycling companies with machines in the Tour. He does not wear the yellow Livestrong wristband to promote Armstrong’s cancer foundation or the other foundations several of the Tour bike riders support as the commentators from other channels do.

His interviews with riders are both technical and substantive. When his editors tell him that it would be a fine idea to get "behind the scenes" to find out about team tensions, simmering current and past doping sagas and the soap operas that other media were reporting on, Cronkite responded that, “He didn’t see any reason to help any of the other contenders gain any advantages through playing mind games by reporting on issues that he had no credible sources for.” And while they thought (but did not let him know, legend that he was) that he was behind the eight ball in not reporting about Lance Armstrong’s announcement before the race was over that he was starting a new team that would race in the 2010 Tour, he anticipated their displeasure by telling them that the Tour was about the racing and not about promoting a team that was not even formed. At the end of his stint at the Tour, Cronkite ended with his signature, “and that’s the way it is.”

3. The Versus team offered what we have come to expect from the media today. In fact, if you wanted to see the Tour on Versus, it would be possible to view their coverage through their website. 

Though there were 20 teams on the Tour,  two of them American, most of the interviews were with American riders. The commentary during the Tour was technical, substantive and informative, and offered personal and professional advice. Two of the commentators were former Tour participants. They gave several pointers and educational tips each day about professional riding. They bantered and joked with each other and enjoyed the banter with fans who sent them messages.

They went "behind the scenes" to do human interest stories, not only about the riders but about the support teams for the Tour, including the podium girls who get the ceremonial cheek kisses, give the flowers and trophies to the riders at the end of each stage. They stayed away from doping talk and did not mention that one of the Tour riders repeatedly refused to ceremonial cheek kiss one of the podium girls who was black. 

Discussion of the increase in ratings as a result of Lance Armstrong’s return, and about his role in increasing the growth of bicycling as a competitive sport (in addition to his role in increasing cancer research awareness) were considered part of covering the Tour. The two reporters “down in the peloton” interviewed representatives of the bicycling companies that many of the riders were competing on. Insider discussions included viewers getting to create and follow their own fantasy bike teams; winning an opportunity to get autographed jersies of the commentators; and of deciding whether Lance Armstrong was a tougher athlete than Miguel Angel Torres, the mixed martial arts champion or Danica Patrick the race car driver, events sponsored on Versus as well. Several of the riders gave Twitter updates about the Tour, which the commentators found worth mentioning.  At the end of the Tour, the commentators all agreed that they, too, had done a terrific job, because they had their own put-me-in-the-story competition about who was the best at picking stage winners.  

This is not a case study of "find the hidden errors." It is an attempt to get us to think about what kind of reporting gets us in trouble and what kind of reporting jeopardizes journalistic integrity itself. We all have different views about this. We are just interested in finding out what people think about each of these approaches.          

Please let us know if you think we have made any errors in this special report. We are especially interested in errors that cause harm to news reporting itself.