When Reporters Make Mistakes

Photo: Flickr/Ron Mader

When I was in college studying journalism, my career plan didn't include becoming a reporter. I wanted to be a filmmaker and the TV news production classes were the closest thing to filmmaking offered at my university.

Little did I realize that those classes would prepare me for the future. I also made numerous mistakes in those classes. We produced a weekly TV news show for cable. One time I forgot the name of the person I was interviewing and introduced her as Joanne Woodward (the famous actress). We laughed on camera. At least I got her first name correct.

But not all journalism mistakes are funny.

Another time I interviewed an expert on economic development but failed to bring a headphone with me to monitor sound. I didn't know the microphone battery had died and was unable to use any of the interview. And then there was the time I interviewed a person over the phone and then lost my notes and never found them.

Some mistakes are basically human error: incorrect spellings, words left out by accident or inaccurate punctuation. More serious journalism errors include factual and ideological mistakes.

When incorrect information fits into our worldview, we can easily accept false information as truth. This is why issues like global warming are so divisive. The data can be incorrectly analyzed and it leads to incorrect conclusions. For example, while this summer was very hot in parts of the northern hemisphere, Antarctica was having a cold winter.

Defamation and Libel

Journalism students are often required to learn about the New York Times vs. Sullivan court case. In 1960 The New York Times featured an advertisement for Martin Luther King Jr.'s defense which may be viewed here. The advertisement had several errors in it and L. B. Sullivan, the Montgomery, Alabama, Public Safety commissioner, responded by suing for libel.

The case reached the Supreme Court and the ruling set a new standard for libel lawsuits. According to Wikipedia, the ruling "requires that the plaintiff in a defamation or libel case prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew that the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity."

Although the newspaper ad incorrectly stated that King had been arrested seven times when he had only been arrested four times, the Court ruled that this error was not libelous.

It is now harder for public officials to win libel lawsuits. However, these lawsuits can be very expensive for the publishers to defend and legal costs have restricted the investigative reporting produced by American media.

Correcting the Mistakes

If you find a factual error in an online news story or blog, you may often leave a comment. Please respond politely and avoid Insulting language. Also respect people with a different point of view and follow the Golden Rule with what you say.

Another option for correcting media errors is writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper or requesting permission to write a guest blog post. At the Christian Post we are constantly looking for articles by guest writers. You may contact me by email: barry (at) christianpost (dot) com.

The Christian Post