Home > editing > Accuracy and skeptical editors

Accuracy and skeptical editors

Newspapers, big and small, produce thousands of stories on deadline. It is not surprising that mistakes are sometimes made. But every mistake damages the newspaper’s reputation with its readers. It’s difficult to repair trust. And that’s why editors – and copy editors – edit skeptically and often put procedures in place designed to minimize errors. Recently, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt wrote about three different mistakes made at one of the nation’s most prestigious papers. Follow the link to his column. After careful thought, tell me if you think editors could have caught the mistakes or should have done anything differently. As future journalists, does Hoyt’s column make you think differently about how you might handle a story as either an editor or reporter? Post your comments below by the beginning of class Thursday, Jan. 29.

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Categories: editing
  1. Marcy Pursell
    January 27, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    After reading the story, I feel like the reporters and editors should have done more to verify their information. The editors should have thought to question certain things about each of the mistakes and asked the reporter about it before the article went to print. I think that the editors should have caught the mistakes, but I can understand that everyone does make mistakes.
    As a future journalist, it does make me think differently about how to handle a story, but I hope that I would cover all my bases before sending my story off to the editor. If I were an editor, I hope I will have checked all my bases, confirmed items of question with the reporter, etc. I would like to think that all mistakes can be prevented and that newspapers will always be considered trustworthy.
    As the article states, the mistakes that were made could have been prevented had one more phone call been made to verify information. If something can lead to disaster so quickly, why not make one more phone call to prevent the disaster from happening? I liked how the article ended with the advice Ronald Reagan always gave to reporters: Trust but verify.

  2. Andrea Vasquez
    January 28, 2009 at 8:46 am

    I think Hoyt’s column means different things to different people. I think for readers, it paints a better picture of all the work that goes into collecting and reporting accurate information (the part of the iceberg that is below the water, as my high school journalism teacher would call it). Although credibility is everything for a news source, I’m not sure audiences always understand how a slip in vigilance – rather than complete negligence – can produce such glaring errors. That said, I think any reporters reading Hoyt’s column may cringe but know there should have been more verification. Although reporters know how easy it can be to print misinformation – especially with elusive sources or other tangled details – they also know the standard to which they are held and the kind of work it takes to maintain that.
    I think all those mistakes could and should have been avoided, though they are all understandable. Despite the miscommunication among the three reporters, Halbfinger should have called Paterson. In the faked letter, Feyer should not have jumped the gun and printed the article without hearing back, aside from glossing over the various red flags in the e-mail. Finally, Evans should have been more pressing in finding other sources to verify the party scene – even if to enhance the story with more quotes and details. I know deadlines and repetition can dull vigilance in newsrooms, but stories like these remind reporters and editors never to rest or assume.

  3. Morgan Demmel
    January 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    I think Hoyt’s column highlighted that fact that a few small errors in judgment can cause a huge misunderstanding. Even though the reporters and editors were diligent in gathering their information, a more critical eye could have asked the necessary questions and caught the errors before they were printed. I’m sure deadlines can cause reporters to be slightly less thorough when speaking to or believing sources, but these mistakes prove that a reporter can never be too thorough or too skeptical.
    I think it is important for editors to be even more skeptical of sources than reporters. Reporters who are very familiar with a story can sometimes overlook important details. This is when the role of the editor becomes significant because an editor who is less familiar with the story can see gaps in information or sources unnoticed by the reporter.
    As a journalist, Hoyt’s column opened my eyes to the possibilities of journalism errors. After reading about these errors, I will be more diligent when checking my sources. It is important to remember that all reporters and editors are human and make mistakes, even those working at the New York Times. But as a reporter, I will strive to double check my sources and information until I am confident in my story. In order for the public to keep its trust in journalists, reporters and editors must work together to understand and verify each source presented in a story.

  4. Katrina Fischman
    January 28, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    In the “fake phone call” error, I don’t think much more could have been done by the editors. It seems like they made some attempts to verify facts and what resulted was a misinterpretation of information. However, they should have tried to contact Gov. David Paterson, and there is no excuse for that mistake.

    I blame the editors for the “fake letter” error and believe it could have been caught had they adhered to their own policy of printing letters only after the writer verified the letter. Also, there were many commonsense warning signs that the letter was false. Anyone who knows anything about the internet would have been suspicious of the ads at the bottom of a government e-mail and the “.com” instead of “.gov” domain.

    In the “wild party” error, I mainly blame football player, Jamarkus McFarland, for the errors in the story about him. He fabricated details of the party for a class assignment, and I can understand the reporter assuming the events were true because it was a graded paper. McFarland let the reporter see the composition, and he should have told the reporter what was true and what was false even if the reporter didn’t specify that he was going to use the information. The reporter asked what hotel the party was at, and McFarland could not remember. The reporter did not ask who invited him to the party and who else was there, which I think was a crucial error that led to this whole situation. The editors should have asked for these details to verify the story, especially because the information is shocking.

    Hoyt’s column shows how complex fact-checking is in a newsroom, and it is easy for mistakes to slip by without anyone noticing. The column made me realize the importance of verifying information even if the sources and/or reporters are trustable. Often when I interview sources I take their word for the truth and think as long as I attribute information to them I will be safe, but this article proves that isn’t always the case.

  5. John Ray
    January 28, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    I believe that The New York Times messed up just like everyone does. Granted The Times is a trusted news source but I believe that every paper or television network makes mistakes.
    In the story about the letter, I don’t see why the editor broke the papers policy on verifying letters to the editor. He said he had read dozens of fake letters before so I’m not sure why he thought that this one was so different.
    In the fake phone call story, I’m not really sure what to think. I can see how the reporter may have interpreted the words differently, but should he have published a story without any hard factual evidence.
    As for the last story, I’m a little lost. I’m not sure why the reporter was reading the english paper of the student, why he didn’t put i his story that the quote was from an english paper and why he didn’t ask the student about the english paper.

  6. Amanda Bergstrom
    January 28, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I think in all three cases there could have been some warning signs for editors that there was something amiss with them. In the case of the phone call between the government officials, the fact that no quotes from either of the men, agreeing or disagreeing with the conversation, were present should have caught attention. Maybe if the editor had asked if the reporter had tried to contact one of the officials it would have come out how little the reporter knew of the credibility.

    The same goes for the story with the letter to the editor. Even though it was an editor that read the fake letter he did not take the time to really look at the possibility that it was a fake. I’m not certain anyone else could have caught this mistake after he looked over it, but he should have done it himself. Also the editor should have made the necessary phone call that he later states is part of the protocol when it comes to letters to the editor.

    In the football story it seems like there may have been a lack of editing to the article due to the date of the deadline. It is mentioned that the deadline for the article was Christmas Day and that two editors failed to question the reporter on the content of his article. Yet there seems to be a lot of mistakes also due to the football player’s involvement in the article; he did not seem to give correct information to the reporter who trusted him.

    This does make me think differently about how to handle a story. There a lot of small things that can be overlooked due to laziness or a lack of time, that in the end could ruin a story’s or paper’s credibility. I never really considered what all must go into a story to make it complete before it can actually be fit to print.

  7. Stephen Youngerman
    January 28, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    The three examples that Clark Hoyt used to portray the difficulties of a widely distributed and read newspaper captured how one small mistake may lead to one huge mess.
    The first story revolved around a phone conversation that basically never took place. In the hectic work atmosphere of the newsroom, essential elements of the story were overlooked by a whole team of reporters. The main problem seemed to a lack of communication between the team. Mass communication is a major component of a healthy newsroom, especially when working on pressured deadlines. Had the team picked up the phone to verify and check one anothers work, the problem probably would not have gotten out of hand.
    The faked letter was more of a case of laziness. The editor in question is a veteran who is, for the most part, respected by co-workers and his skills as an editor have never been in question. Maybe that’s what allowed him to pass over a letter that he admitted later to having the necessary signs of a fake. The signs may not have been overtly telling, but it’s the editors job to check and verify each letter and its source, and in this instance he failed to do so. It seemed like a common mistake, but when the idea of your newspaper is to question and inform, the informing part should be absolutely accurate.
    The party incident made me laugh when I read it. The reporter didn’t even come close to completing his story, and the editors should have called him out on it. He wrote the majority of the story off of inaccurate information. Information that the student turned into his teacher and probably got an “A” for because of the padding of the details and truth.

  8. John Schreier
    January 28, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    There are corrections tucked inside the front page in every single newspaper. Some of the more interesting ones can definitely brighten a bad day, but most of the time, these errors are caused by a lack of oversight. The ones mentioned in Clark Hoyt’s column are more of the same.

    The story about Caroline Kennedy’s non-interest in a Senate seat really was “an out-of-mind experience.” I don’t really see how the only sources were an anonymous source (which I naturally distrust, especially circumstances like these) and a misunderstood comment by a reporter watching TV. I can understand the mix-up with the Coley because I actually took the remark as a “no comment” as well. But the phone call has to be made to Gov. Paterson.

    The false e-mail seems careless to me. I saw it as something that everyone was so shocked to see from a likely source, so the editor took it as factual too quickly. There were too many errors to let that pass, especially considering those errors. Things like that stand out, even to a person sorting through thousands of e-mails. Just a little bit more caution, and this whole crisis could’ve been averted.

    Finally, I remember reading this story about the football recruit in another newspaper. Someone with so little experience dealing with media, especially someone with a story that could seriously damage a school (that would be more NCAA violations than I could count), needs a little research. It seemed to me as if there wasn’t enough information to go ahead and publish the story. Also, I can’t see a paper as source to quote in an interview. Everyone was in the wrong here, so the New York Times isn’t at fault as much in this story as the other.

  9. Brittany Sturek
    January 28, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    I think all three cases are just a matter of the reporters and editors being a little lazy. The Kennedy situation may have been a little confusing, but more could have been done. MacFarland’s situation should have been further investigated. A high school paper shouldn’t be the basis for any reporter’s story, and the reporter should have tried to confirm the party even happened and contacted the schools. And the false email should have been noticed by the editor immediately. But all three cases reiterate the fact that journalists are human. I think one of the biggest mistakes journalists commit is making assumptions. We like to think we’ll ask all the tough questions and think of every possible detail, but we don’t. I knew being a reporter is tough, but this article shows that the editor’s job is even tougher.

  10. Rachel Sullivan
    January 28, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    In the matter of the fake phone call, the editor definitely should have caught the mistake. All he had to do was call and verify from either party. As a result of his failure to do so, he ended up looking like a bad editor. He probably wasn’t, but one slip up could make it appear so.
    The faked letter would have been a lot harder to catch, in my opinion. Although I guess it might be strange that the mayor of Paris sent an email to the newspaper, I wouldn’t think many people would want to fake a letter from him. This email also could have been checked more thorougly, but I would be more lenient on this editor.
    Thayer Evans could have verified that there were other people at the party and that McFarland had been enticed to the party by recruiters by seeking other witnesses. When no other witnesses appeared to be available, he should have dropped the story.
    The story makes me want to be more careful in the matter of checking sources. Even a small slip up could result in embarrasment for myself, the newspaper and the subject. A simple verification check could save a lot of time and energy in the long run.

  11. Krista Vogel
    January 29, 2009 at 12:41 am

    I understand that mistakes occur in newspapers. As harmful as they are for a paper’s reputation, mistakes are unavoidable. However, in these cases, the inaccuracies seemed to be very easy to prevent. The main problem was that sources were not verified. As a future journalist, I know that writing an article based on a rumor or hearsay is unreliable and could potentially have holes. The journalists causing these three errors seem to have temporarily forgotten or disregarded this rule of thumb. While finding an attention-grabbing story is a great pull for a paper, the backlash of an untrue article is far worse than not being the first to break the story.
    The faked letter seemed to be the most blatant, fixable error. The editor had more than enough experience to know that not all e-mails can be trusted, and he should have verified it. In addition, he should have adhered to the paper’s policy on verifying letters to the editor.
    Both other stories could have been fixed by simply checking the facts. Sources should have been called, and these mistakes would have never occurred. In the story about the football player, the reporter should have dug deeper beyond the English paper and checked the facts of it. In a similar way, the phone call story had little to no real sources, which is the base of any good article.
    Hoyt’s article brings to light that trust is not easily earned in the world of journalism. As an aspiring editor, I realize how important it is to be sure that an article is as accurate as it can possibly be before publishing it. I think it’s important for reporters and editors alike to understand how big an impact these careless mistakes can make to a newspaper’s credibility, as well as one’s own.

  12. Jaclyn Tan
    January 29, 2009 at 1:05 am

    I think the fake letter would have been the easiest to catch. If only the editor followed the verification policy. I would have been more skeptical about the letter from the “mayor of Paris,” especially because there’s no sure way of telling where and who the email came from. Even if the email actually came from the mayor of Paris herself, the editor should have followed standard procedure to verify whether it was true. Email is particularly dangerous because anyone can hack into it if they try hard enough. As for the phone call, I think the editors should have just called Kennedy and Paterson to determine whether any conversation actually took place. The high school essay case was harder because the reporter said he checked on the facts. I’m not sure I would have quoted the essay, but the reporter trusted his source. I guess this is why it’s good to get at least two sources to corroborate something. But just as Clark Hoyt said, the editors should have made some simple phone calls that might have averted the mistakes.

    Hoyt’s column definitely made me realize that even a top newspaper like the New York Times can slip up. Editors are human. But that means that I need to try even harder to double check information before publishing any of it. Regardless of whether I’m a reporter or editor, I need to be more aware of information that I report or edit. I should check something if I have even a shred of doubt about it. Readers expect journalists to do that for them, and that’s why reputation counts. I think that with the field of journalism being as competitive as it is, journalists can’t afford to slip up too many times. If they do, readers will just switch to the paper that does its job better.

  13. Katy Healey
    January 29, 2009 at 1:20 am

    Clark Hoyt’s column, if nothing else, revealed how diligent editors must be when proofreading. In the newsroom, credibility is everything. Although regrettable, minor mistakes are to be expected on occasion. It is the mistakes that result from sheer laziness that truly chip away at a newspaper’s credibility.
    The first example Hoyt used was the product of miscommunication. Of all people, reporters should understand the importance of clarity; had the reporters who contributed to this story communicated more clearly, the slip-up could have been avoided.
    The blame for the second example falls squarely on Thomas Feyer’s shoulders. Based on the evidence Hoyt provided, it seems obvious that the letter was a fake—even to readers. As a professional journalist, he should have exercised better judgment and withheld the letter until it could be verified.
    The final example gives the impression that the freelance writer, Thayer Evans, was an amateur. Quoting a recruit’s high school English paper in The Times was irresponsible and unacceptable. The recruit was not issuing a press release when he wrote those words; thus, it was not appropriate to publish those words in The Times. If the reporter wished to include information about the party the recruit attended, he should have interviewed him and the other partygoers firsthand. If Evans assumed the basic responsibilities of reporting, he could have easily avoided the error.
    Hoyt’s closing line was very fitting: Trust, but verify. Ronald Reagan’s advice resonated deeply with me, as a future journalist. The words speak for themselves!

  14. Mac Barber
    January 29, 2009 at 1:37 am

    The Kennedy and party stories were similar to me in that both were simple misunderstandings. They’re also similar in that they could both be easily remedied by a simple phone call for verification. I guess another lesson from these stories is not too trust your sources too much. It’s good to trust your source, but not to the point where you take everything they say as truth, no questions asked.

    I think the fake letter to the editor was the most obvious mistake. There were so many warning signs, and yet the editor did nothing to verify the letter. The paper didn’t even adhere to its own standards of calling people to verify their letters. I understand that the editor may have just been zoning out at the time, or maybe he was just too trusting, but this story serves as a reminder to always keep your guard up. We like to think that everyone is honest and forthright when they give information to reporters, but that is not always the case.

    This column also showed me that everyone makes mistakes. No one means to make mistakes. We’re all human, and we all mess up sometimes. This is no excuse to not be as vigilant as possible. Another lesson I learned is that there is no one person responsible for a mistake. There are many people who could ask the question and avoid the mistake. It’s a team effort, so to speak, which means people need to work together to avoid mistakes. If a story is going through many filters instead of just one, the odds of catching and correcting a mistake are much higher.

    Another thing that struck me about this column was how serious it all was. I was surprised at first because the people at fault were so apologetic and remorseful it was like they had just hit someone with their car on accident. I didn’t understand that attitude until I realized that the livelihood of the newspaper, if not all media in general, depends on the right information being passed along. Trust from readers is a lot easier to break down than it is to build up, so each mistake is a killer.

  15. Mekita
    January 29, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Hoyt’s column reiterates the one standard that reporters and editors alike must constantly strive to maintain — validating the truth. Obviously, opinion and bias serve to skew, but it is our job as journalists to not let those elements faze us.

    The whole Caroline Kennedy debacle was just pure confusion, most of which could have been fully avoided if one person had just gone the extra mile. And not even that…the reporter should have just been doing his JOB which, as I have already stated, is to relentlessly validate what he presumes is the truth.

    As disappointed as I was to read about this reporter’s inability to check a few sources, I was more let down by the editor in charge of letters to the editor. What was he thinking? With nine years of experience, I should hope he was on some sort of medication when he ignored the blatant signals that the letter from the mayor of Paris was a hoax. The .com address, the ads…clearly all red flags.

    I agree with everyone who has said that we are only human, and that we make mistakes. But perhaps something we should start to accept is that by pursing a future in this business, we have traded in our right to have blunders. Because now we have a right to speak truthfully, and no one should have to doubt the validity of our statements.

  16. Brittany Claxton
    January 29, 2009 at 9:35 am

    It is clear the instances mentioned in Hoyt’s article could have easily been avoided. As professional journalists they allowed miscommunication, lack of verification and lack of intensity to pursue more information. It seems to present a case of simple laziness, especially to the misinformed reader.

    As a student of journalism these stories offer classic examples of exactly what not to do in the professional world. I, along with media consumers, expect a level of integrity associated with news gathering and mistakes related to circumstances such as these simply should not happen.

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