Tag Archives: media errors

When “confirmed” doesn’t mean “true”

Was there a second shooter? Was there a shooting at the Rideau Centre? Was the victim dead? Was the gunman carrying a rifle or a shotgun? What was the name of the shooter? What was the name of the victim? Was it the sergeant-at-arms who finally took the gunman down? Was this an act of terrorism?

Throughout the day on Wednesday, these questions were asked, answered and in some cases those answers were retracted by the media. It’s the nature of the beast when dealing with a breaking emergency situation like this — nobody really knows the answers at first, even the authority figures you normally go to for those answers.

What does “confirmed” mean?

After these kinds of events, there are inevitably media criticism think pieces telling us that we need to verify facts before publishing them, that we can’t repeat rumours that are unconfirmed, that getting it right is more important than getting it first.

But those kinds of pieces always annoy me, because they assume there’s some standard of correctness that a piece of information can achieve, and once it has it’s guaranteed to be true.

As we learned in Ottawa, it’s a lot more complicated than that. It was the Ottawa police that said there was an incident at or near the Rideau Centre shopping mall, only to retract that statement later in the day. It was a federal cabinet minister who tweeted on his verified account that the victim in the shooting had died, only to later walk that statement back. In the end, one of those events turned out to be false and the other true.

But in both cases they were referred to as “confirmed” by the media. When those confirmations were walked back, the power of the word diminished.

Attribute everything

As Craig Silverman (the local expert in media getting things wrong) would say, an important question to ask a source when compiling information is “How do you know this?” A source may seem official because they’re a police officer or an official spokesperson or a company CEO or an expert in the field, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their information is rock-solid.

In emergency situations, asking those kinds of questions is a luxury, and often impractical. But one thing that is neither is attribution, even when the information appears to be fully verified and unquestionably accurate.

Strictly speaking, the statement “Ottawa police posted on Twitter that there was an incident at the Rideau Centre” is correct, even though there was no shooting there. It’s not just about covering your ass; it provides a publicly verifiable trail of information, and breeds trust in the news outlet while it breeds skepticism in the news.

There’s a tendency for news organizations to want to seem authoritative, to say things like “we have independently confirmed“. But that statement is meaningless if the confirmation comes from the same anonymous source as the initial report, and just as likely to be wrong.

On the other hand, there’s a different tendency to be vague when referring to competitors, to refer to vague “reports”. This can give the illusion of authority, even when all the reports out there inevitably come from the same source.

These things cause facts to spread, and the more they spread, the more people believe them to be true.

Show your work

One way to avoid this is simple: everything should be attributed where possible. And that’s not just good advice in reporting on breaking news, it’s good advice in general. It may not look cool, but I’m more likely to trust a report that explains how it knows what it knows.

In math class, we’re asked to show our work, to prevent us from using calculators to find the answers to problems or simply asserting the conclusion without understanding how it got there. We should ask the same of journalists.

Rather than criticize the media with the benefit of hindsight, let’s use Wednesday’s events as an example of what to do. When the name of the alleged gunman came out from a CBS News report, many Canadian media attributed it to them. If CBS got it wrong, then we’d know the Canadian media got it wrong too, and there wouldn’t be “conflicting reports”.

I personally think more caution should be exercised before naming someone in a case like this — the media got the shooter’s name wrong in Newtown, remember, and getting this kind of thing wrong, attribution or no attribution, could have serious consequences for the person named, his or her family and people who know them. But if it has to be done, attributing it is the way to go.

That way, we can better evaluate the credibility of information, and just as importantly, so can other media, so we can all separate what’s been “confirmed” from what’s just been repeated. And we can give the audience as clear a picture of the facts as possible, even if the facts are murky.

I think, in times of emergency especially, that’s the least we can do. And kudos to those journalists who did exactly that.

Epic gaffe sees wrong phone number shown on TV to millions

Wrong number appears on screen for Lac Mégantic benefit concert

Wrong number appears on screen for Lac Mégantic benefit concert

It was supposed to be one of those feel-good stories. Artists, touched by the tragic events of Lac-Mégantic, gathered for a benefit concert at the Bell Centre earlier this month. The show was recorded and broadcast in the most popular time slot on Quebec television: primetime on Sunday night.

But what made it extra special was that the unity extended to the TV networks as well. Rather than competing with each other, all four conventional French-language television networks — Radio-Canada, TVA, V and Télé-Québec — aired the same program at the same time. If you lived in some of Quebec’s regions with only an antenna for TV service, you had nothing else on TV to watch but this show.

For TVA and Radio-Canada specifically, whose Sunday night wars have both of them reaching millions of Quebec homes (and making television here better as a result), it was particularly touching.

And it all would have gone off great, except for one simple mistake.

Continue reading

My Grey Cup screwup

I have, in the past, made light of errors made in various media. In some cases they’re minor and entirely understandable. In some cases there is a fundamental problem with something that has been reported.

And in some cases, it’s technically minor but incredibly embarrassing. I always sympathize with unintentional errors, even when I expose them for all to see.

If this had been any other Montreal media, I’d be posting it here with, I admit, a little bit of childish glee. But it was my paper.

And worse than that, it was me.

Erroneous Grey Cup scoreline in Monday's Gazette

I got an email this morning from Sarah Leavitt at OpenFile asking if I was working last night “when the Grey Cup mess up on the front page happened.” Since I had no idea what she was talking about, I turned on my laptop and looked at the electronic version of the paper (I’m too lazy to walk downstairs for the print version). I read the pointer text I had written, looked at the photo of the players and of the Grey Cup, looked at the page number it pointed to. I looked at the score to make sure it went in right. Yeah, it was 34-23 for the Lions…

Oh crap.

In case it hasn’t occurred to you, the error, which appears downpage on A1 on Monday, is that the name “Hamilton Tiger-Cats” should be “Winnipeg Blue Bombers”. It’s not like I wasn’t aware the Blue Bombers were the ones playing. But for whatever reason it didn’t hit me as I was filling in the rest of the text that Hamilton wasn’t the right team.

And it didn’t strike the other editors who read the front page, who are not big sports fans and had specifically asked me to write this text because they were worried about getting something fundamental wrong.

Naturally, this error did not go unnoticed. Influence Communication saw it and told its 12,000 followers. Mike Finnerty noticed it (and was nice about it, comparing it to one of his own errors). OpenFile has a story on it, by Leavitt, which quotes me trying to explain myself.

But really, there is no excuse. Just a very embarrassing correction in Tuesday’s paper, some teasing by fellow editors on the sports desk, and some reader email questioning our competence, all of which is clearly deserved.

Correction printed in The Gazette on Page A2 on Nov. 29

UPDATE (Nov. 29): I got some good-natured ribbing from my colleagues at work, and the newsroom manager said she got about a dozen phone calls from readers, many of them dripping with sarcasm. (I didn’t see any emails about it, though. Perhaps because the mistake wasn’t repeated online.)

News of the mistake made it to the Hamilton Spectator, which posted a story about it on Monday afternoon and included an image of the error in Tuesday’s paper.

The Gazette correction appeared in Tuesday’s edition on Page A2. I’m hoping my mom doesn’t add it to the scrapbook Too late, apparently. There are also two letters to the editor on the subject.

UPDATE (Dec. 4): Craig Silverman wrote this up for his column in the Toronto Star.

Metro screws up, but it’s just the wrong name

Metro reports Alan DeSousa quits Union Montreal. Except he didn't.

Congratulations to Metro, which had the scoop this morning (UPDATE: link now dead) that Saint Laurent borough mayor Alan DeSousa has quit Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montreal party to join the opposition Projet Montréal.

This news is a bombshell, coming halfway into the mayor’s third term. De Sousa is a high-profile figure in Tremblay’s party. And yet only Metro is reporting the news so far.

That’s because it never happened. DeSousa didn’t quit Tremblay’s party, and says he has no plans to.

Turns out it was another borough mayor, from another party, that defected today. Rosemont’s François Croteau left Vision Montreal, saying Louise Harel’s party has no political vision (I’m not sure if that was intended as a pun). You can read his full statement here.

Correction fail

Metro’s story reporting about Croteau adds a “précision” that the story about DeSousa was incorrect. I’m no expert on the French language, but the definition of “précision” doesn’t seem to fit “we got the story all wrong and made it all up”.

More importantly, though, the original story reporting DeSousa defecting was still online, with no correction, four 12 hours (and perhaps as many as 26) after the truth was known and the “précision” appended to the Croteau story. The writer says (see below) that this was a technical problem.

What’s interesting about that story, by reporter Mathias Marchal, is that it doesn’t cite a single source for its information, not even anonymous ones. No “Metro has learned” or any of the other euphemisms that journalists use to say they have a scoop. It’s written as if it’s already public knowledge and its status as a fact is unquestioned.

Except, of course, that it’s all made up.

Was it just a guess?

I’m curious how this story came to be written (see update below). It wasn’t in this morning’s print edition, and the timestamp shows it was first posted at 9:43am, with the press conference set for 11.

The press conference part was known. A press release announcing it was sent at 7:54am. It said a borough mayor would defect to Projet Montréal, but didn’t say which one (or from which party). My instinct (and hey, it could be wrong) is that this was a guess. There are 18 boroughs in Montreal whose mayor isn’t Gérald Tremblay. It obviously wasn’t Plateau mayor Luc Ferrandez, who’s already part of Projet Montréal. And it probably wouldn’t have been Ahuntsic-Cartierville mayor Pierre Gagnier, who quit Projet Montréal. But that still leaves 16 people. A rumour might have been enough to sway an inexperienced journalist into running with the story.

What’s ridiculous is how little gain there is from something like this. At best, other media will cite you for the hour between the time your report is published and the time the press conference confirms it. At worst, you look like a laughingstock because you got it all wrong, and the subject of your article has to issue a press release pointing out how you disappointed him.

This kind of thing always annoys me. I’ve seen so many times where a newspaper will get the details of an announcement leaked to them the day before and come out with an “exclusive” detailing them mere hours before the press conference. At least Metro didn’t label it as an exclusive, though the damage is the same.

Let this be a lesson to other journalists: An official statement that partially confirms a rumour doesn’t mean that rumour is correct.

And always, especially when you think you’re leaking information the public doesn’t already know (or when you’re taking information from another journalist who appears to be leaking it), cite your sources.

UPDATE (Nov. 2): From Marchal, on Twitter:

À l’origine du problème: un quiproquo au départ lors d’une discussion avec Projet Montréal. (A)ussi bête qu’un mélange entre bld St-Laurent et arrondissement St-Laurent.

Mon erreur, et je me suis excusé à Alan DeSousa, qui n’aurait pas dû être mêlé à ça. La nouvelle fut supprimée après 10 min, mais un problème tech. a fait qu’elle est restée accessible par certains URL.

And to answer the question in your blog, no it wasn’t a guess to gain anything! ;)

Be careful who you make fun of

QMI Agency reporter Julien McEvoy must have thought he had a pretty good scoop when he spotted an ad in a community paper from one of the new NDP MPs that contained some grammatical errors.

The ad was by Matthew Dubé, the former president of the McGill NDP club who had to quit because he got elected as an MP on May 2 in the riding of Chambly-Borduas (that’s the riding Jean-François Mercier ran in as an independent).

Politicians are always putting ads in community newspapers wishing them well during all sorts of holidays. But this one contained some errors. Specifically, two verbs were improperly conjugated, and the ad referred to the riding of Quebec (as in Quebec City), even though his constituency is just east of Montreal.

The Journal de Montréal printed the article on Page 2 on Wednesday (PDF), complete with a reproduction of the ad that circled its errors. At the end, it asks readers to weigh in on whether these kinds of mistakes will affect Jack Layton’s credibility.

McEvoy apparently made no effort to contact Dubé or the NDP for comment. They quickly responded after the story was published, saying it was the newspaper that was responsible. The NDP had not approved the final text of the ad, he says.

The party acted quickly, and got l’Oeil Régional to publish an apology on its website. The Journal and Canoë also published a follow-up piece.

But McEvoy didn’t back down. Despite the paper’s apology, he insists the error was still the NDP’s, that it was the party – not the paper – that drafted the erroneous text in the first place. He has also posted images of another NDP MP’s similar mistakes, and another ad that uses the logo for the NDP (in English, instead of NPD in French).

Perhaps this is why the original articles online have not been corrected or updated. Neither has this article, which erroneously refers to it as a card sent through the mail.

I shouldn’t need to explain why erroneous articles online need to be corrected. The mistake gets passed around a lot more than the correction. And people aren’t going to search the website of every article they read to see if a corrected article was published the next day.

Other articles posted online that used the QMI piece (without attribution or links) also sit uncorrected, including this blog post and this piece on CJAD’s website.

Whether you believe the paper or the NDP is ultimately at fault here (I’m more inclined to believe the latter, though I also think newspapers should proofread all their ads), there are some unfortunate implications of this story. It’s clear that the Journal and Quebecor have an agenda here and are pushing it. They feel the NDP MPs are incompetent and want to expose their troubles with the French language. This story is being fuelled as much by the usual sensationalist bias of the media (and particularly the Journal) as it is by Quebecor’s growing right-wing bias that puts the NDP in its sights.

There’s the fact that McEvoy appears to have made no attempt to contact a politician before publishing a piece designed to smear him. Whether or not such a smear is justified, basic journalistic ethics require at least an attempt to seek comment before publishing it. Had McEvoy done so, he would have learned of the NDP’s response and there would have been little need for a follow-up piece.

And then there’s the simple fact that L’Oeil Régional is now owned by Quebecor. Which brings up the question: Why were Quebecor newspaper employees not able to spot basic grammatical errors in an ad before it was published?

I’d ask these questions to McEvoy, but apparently the new rules of journalism say I don’t have to.

Team 990, where “nothing fucking works”

I wasn’t listening at the time, but enough people were at about 12:50pm Thursday during the Tony Marinaro show on CKGM when an advertising break seemed to go wrong. Very wrong.

Two ads play simultaneously, then they’re followed by dead air. Marco Campagna struggles to get things running, but he’s run into an apparently common computer problem and he lets out a string of obscenities, not realizing that a microphone in the studio is picking up his frustrated yells and is broadcasting them along with the ads.

After the break, according to those listening, cohost Randy Tieman apologized on behalf of the station for the tirade. Campagna, reportedly, feels horrible about what happened.

I feel for the guy. It’s one of those worst-nightmare scenarios for anyone in radio broadcasting. And computer problems can be the most frustrating at times, especially when you’re in an every-second-counts situation like live radio.

Unfortunately, I don’t feel so bad that I’m going to keep the audio off the Internet. A listener caught the minute-long incident and created an audio file. I’ve made a video with captions and uploaded it to YouTube CTVglobemedia, which owns CKGM and apparently doesn’t have a sense of humour, has filed a copyright infringement notice with YouTube, which has disabled the video.

Considering the sound of an announcer blurting out a bunch of F-bombs has no commercial value to the station (what are they going to do, sell it on iTunes?), I think a clear fair dealing case can be made for this.

Rather than play the game with YouTube and other video hosts, I’ll just post the MP3 audio here: F-bombs on The Team 990

Enjoy. And just be glad it wasn’t you.

UPDATE (April 4): The clip was played on the Howard Stern show today. Here’s the audio: Team 990 F-bomb on Howard Stern show (MP3)

“We don’t care if it’s true” journalism

Imagine, for a second, that you’re working in a newsroom and this guy you’ve never heard of walks in off the street and says someone’s going to give him a million dollars for no apparent reason. Imagine that, when you ask for proof of this, he says he won’t reveal the name of the person who’s going to give him the money, but he has a signed notarized letter from a lawyer promising the cash. But he won’t show you the letter, or even give you the name of the lawyer who prepared it.

But don’t worry, he says, all will be revealed at this show in a few weeks that he’s selling tickets for. You see, he’s a comedian.

What do you do?

  1. Take his word for it and write a one-source story that says he’s going to get $1 million, and plug his show
  2. Write a one-source story that expresses a bit of skepticism about whether it’s true but whose headline assumes it is
  3. Wait until after this “show” of his unless you have proof that this story is real or that it’s a hoax
  4. Tell him to get lost until he can show you the cash

Meet Craig Rowin. He’s a comedian who asked for $1 million on YouTube, then later posted another video claiming success. Stories have been written about his claim, and he’s been interviewed many times, including by Mark Kelley on CBC. All the while, he has refused to provide any concrete proof that he will actually receive a million dollars.

Some of the stories about this (including Kelley’s interview) have expressed skepticism, others don’t bother. And these aren’t just the “blogs” and “Twitter” that those snobby professional journalists decry. It’s ABC News, Forbes, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News (with three bylines!) and the Daily Mail (okay, I probably shouldn’t put “Daily Mail” and “professional journalists” in the same sentence).

Meanwhile, you have Gawker, which heightens the skepticism enough to call this “clearly identifiable bullshit”. But that’s just their gut feeling, they don’t actually have any proof that it’s a hoax.

There are also, to be fair, plenty of news agencies that haven’t touched the story, particularly news wires like Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

For the record, I have no idea if this story is true or not. It’s possible it’s all a giant hoax to get media attention. It’s possible that it’s a trick – maybe it’s in Zimbabwean dollars or it’s a chocolate bar called “one million dollars”. It could be that he’s getting $1 million but it’s all part of some elaborate marketing campaign. Or maybe some random gajillionnaire actually just saw a video online and decided to give a random stranger a million dollars for no reason other than he asked for it.

Whether Rowin’s story is true isn’t relevant. What matters is none of these journalists knows if it is or not. None of them have enough proof to satisfy even themselves, much less their audience.

And they don’t care.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter. For far too many journalists, news isn’t about getting it right anymore, it’s about entertainment. Even if Rowin’s story is a giant hoax, it’s still mildly entertaining because it’s a funny story. And for TV journalists, there’s the added benefit of video. Many things that shouldn’t be news stories end up on television newscasts for the sole reason that there’s video available for them.

If Rowin’s story turns out to be a giant fraud, we’ll see some follow-ups saying so. Some may even take it a step further and do analyses, about the power of YouTube to propagate a fantastic story, or about how gullible people are. But we probably won’t see many apologies or corrections. The journalists didn’t lie. They didn’t say for certain that this guy received a million dollars (except in their headlines). They just said he said he was going to receive a million dollars. And that gets them off the hook.

In the end, whether the news gets this story wrong won’t change anything major. Nobody’s going to make a life-or-death decision based on whether this guy gets this money. Nobody’s going to quit their job or ruin their lives over this. In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

The only potential casualty here is the credibility of professional journalism. Thankfully, there’s not much left of that to lose.

UPDATE (Feb. 4): What a shock! It was all a hoax. The news outlets who reported on it as fact, though, are running follow-ups instead of corrections.

The Hindustan Times is going to be very disappointed.

Ups and downs at CFCF-12

I watched the special 50th anniversary broadcast of CFCF-12 last night. It was nice to watch for a local TV buff like me.

The anniversary special was preceded by a very short newscast. And since I made fun of a Global error the night before, I can’t ignore the fancy camerawork on display during a broadcast that I’m sure many other people also had on their digital video recorders.

Wonky, indeed.

CFCF’s own 50th anniversary blooper reel is here.

Badly-timed celebrity deaths

Jerry Orbach, Susan Sontag, Benazir Bhutto, Michelle Lang, Tony Proudfoot, Rémy d’Anjou.

What do these people have in common?

They had the misfortune of dying in late December in recent years, meaning their presence on year-end obituary lists is hit-and-miss.

Orbach and Sontag died on the same day, Dec. 28, 2004, according to Wikipedia. That, more than some editorial decision that they weren’t important enough, was why they were left off lists of celebrity deaths that year, like this one from Associated Press and this one from Hour.

This year, Radio-Canada’s Regards sur 2010 special ended with a long list of important people (particularly Quebecers) who died during the year. Missing from that list is former Alouettes player Tony Proudfoot, because the news of his death came the morning of Dec. 30, the day after the show aired. Some print lists, like this one from Postmedia News and this one from Canadian Press, include his name (at least in their latest versions – this one from Postmedia and this one from CP don’t have it).

Radio-Canada’s year-end special, which was repeated on Jan. 2, is also missing Rémy d’Anjou, who died on Dec. 27, even though he was important enough for Radio-Canada itself to run an obit.

This is the problem when you summarize something before it’s over. I realize there’s a desperate need to fill space just before New Year’s, but publishing a list of people who died during a calendar year before the year is complete is like printing the boxscore of a hockey game before the last buzzer, or publishing a review of a movie before the final act. It’s inaccurate, and obituaries is a place where accuracy is pretty important.

And it’s not like you can just hold them over for next time. Tony Proudfoot and Rémy d’Anjou won’t be appearing on any “they left us in 2011” lists.

Why the media won’t learn from false death reports

It’s been two weeks since the media (both the “mainstream” and “new”/”social”) reported that former NHL coach Pat Burns had died, only to be corrected later that day by Pat Burns himself.

Getting a story wrong in such an obviously embarrassing way is bad enough, but killing someone who isn’t dead (but whose health is failing) makes it even worse. This wasn’t about getting an address wrong or misquoting someone. Stories like these can cause undue anguish upon someone’s loved ones.

Two weeks later, we still don’t have a perfectly clear picture of what happened, even though just about every person with a blog and an axe to grind has proclaimed their superiority on a high horse and cast blame upon those they deem less worthy of the term “journalist.”

Timeline of tweets mentioning Pat Burns on Sept. 17

What really happened

Here’s what we do know: On Sept. 16, news reports surfaced that Burns’s health was declining. He’s fighting a losing battle with cancer, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected.

On the morning of Sept. 17, former Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher met reporters – including the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox – and told them that Pat Burns had died. Cox tweeted the information, and it began to spread.

The sources of reports by other media are less clear: Few of them have published long mea culpas and erroneous tweets and stories have been largely deleted. This tweet from News 1130 radio in Vancouver is typical, happening just as news was breaking around 11am. CTV Ottawa also tweeted the news (and later deleted it and apologized). Ray Ferraro gave it on air on The Team 1040 in Vancouver. The Fan 590 did the same.

With the number of reports expanding exponentially (many of them poorly sourced), news organizations became more confident the news was real and started re-reporting it. Some used the vague “sources report”, others credited specific news organizations, and some didn’t bother with either. On Twitter, where the 140-character limit discourages proper sourcing and the breaking-news-retweet culture means rumours can spread fast, any care to qualify the news with attribution is quickly lost in a sea of tweets like “RIP Pat Burns”.

At some point, TSN prepared an obituary that was published on its website. TSN denied to Torontoist that they had ever reported Burns dying, but the National Post has a screenshot of the TSN story online saying exactly that.

TSN being a respected news organization, its story sparked other media to make the decision to publish the information, including The Gazette. Sun Media even published a pre-written obituary column. The Toronto Star and other news organizations also reported that Burns had died.

(It’s been theorized that TSN may have inadvertently published a draft obituary that was findable by Google even though it hadn’t been posted to the website’s homepage. That’s one plausible explanation, and a good warning about what’s considered “published” in some content management systems.)

Before too long, reports of Burns’s not-death had begun to circulate. Burns’s son was telling journalists that his father was alive. News organizations started panicking and pulling their stories. Eventually Burns himself called TSN’s Bob McKenzie to say he was still with us. The not-death confirmed, those obituaries were quickly being replaced by stories explaining that Burns was not dead despite the “rumours” that those same news organizations had described as “reports” only an hour earlier.

By the next day, columns started appearing in newspapers, many of them blaming Twitter for the bad Burns rumours or bragging that they were more cautious. (Though not to brag about it, CTV Montreal’s Jed Kahane made a point of emailing me to say that his station never reported the erroneous news, even though its sister station in Ottawa did, causing many to say “CTV” got it wrong and paint the entire network with one irresponsible brush. Canadian Press also reported that they held off on the story)

CBC put up a “timeline” of tweets, but one that is entirely blank for the first 50 minutes of this story’s genesis. Influence Communication also puts up a timeline (one that suggests TSN did in fact tweet the information, which TSN has denied), though it’s similarly less than complete.

Sound familiar?

If this all sounds a lot like what happened to Gordon Lightfoot in February, you aren’t imagining it. There are many aspects of the two obiticides that are similar:

  • Both stories originated from a friend of the not-deceased, who was erroneously informed of the death and told the media (in Lightfoot’s case, it was a prank, while Fletcher says he was “misinformed by a friend”, without making it clear who that friend was or how the misinformation originated). In neither case did any of this original communication happen via Twitter, so far as we know
  • In both cases, the information was published on Twitter and on news websites by journalists – with no confirmation from an independent party
  • In both cases, other news media re-reported the news, many with inadequate sourcing and none making a proper attempt at independent confirmation
  • In both cases, the multiplication of reports from a single source appears to have been confused as multiple independent sources, giving more credibility to what is essentially a single-source second-hand rumour
  • In both cases, it was the subject himself who had to step forward and proclaim his aliveness
  • In both cases, editors quickly suppressed or deleted stories from news websites when learning of rumours that the story was wrong – leaving only an error message which could have given readers the impression that either the website had a technical problem or that the organization was trying to hide the fact that they screwed up
  • In both cases, mainstream media blamed Twitter and social media, while so-called new media blamed the mainstream
  • In both cases, there were lots of explanations, but few apologies; lots of analyses of what went wrong, but few reasonable suggestions on how to prevent it from happening again

In reality, such errors long predate Twitter, and have followed similar paths for many years. Read this excerpt from Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error, published in 2007 (mere months after Twitter launched and long before it achieved the kind of audience it has now), and you see a lot that applies to this situation. Twitter hasn’t created a problem here, but it has made it much worse.

The get-it-second philosophy

Here’s the truth: Despite all the apologies, all the hand-wringing, all the judgmental columns, the media won’t learn much from Pat Burns, just like they learned little from Gordon Lightfoot. Sure, they will be a bit more skeptical the next time they hear a celebrity dies, but not enough. We saw that just this week as everyone jumped over themselves to report the death of comedian Greg Giraldo and movie star Tony Curtis. Fortunately they were right on both counts, but many of those early stories said things like “TMZ reports” or “Entertainment Weekly reports”.

So why the rush anyway? It’s not like they’ll get any more dead if you wait a few minutes, right? And if you don’t have the scoop, why would you want to draw attention to that embarrassing fact?

The answer is Google.

Ever since mainstream news organizations first learned how to analyze traffic to their websites, they’ve been desperate to harness the awesome power of Google. When news breaks about someone, searches for that person’s name skyrocket, and online editors know the faster they get something – anything – online with that person’s name, the faster they can scoop up some of those Google searches and see a spike in traffic. This is why online media seem so obsessed with the most minor stories about Katy Perry, Lady Gaga or other celebrities: They’re already searched like crazy, and the combination of celebrity and breaking news is a gold mine that the media (whether it’s the Vancouver Sun or the Huffington Post) are desperate to pillage.

Not wanting to be the only news organization not reporting some hot gossip, many will lower their standards or eliminate them entirely in the interests of speed.

Google didn’t create this problem, but it did make it much worse. It doesn’t adequately punish news websites that steal scoops from others. As a result, it rewards this behaviour. It encourages narrow-minded thinking and pushes people toward the lowest common denominator. It prioritizes speed over accuracy or depth. It drives traffic to stories that are identical to those found elsewhere (Google News judges importance by how often a story is repeated) rather than original reporting that is truly worthy of attention.

Before this era, journalists were a bit more careful. For one thing, they were highly skeptical of big scoops from the competition, and many would verify the information with the thought of how great it would be if that scoop proved to be wrong. Now, the news happens too fast for that. It’s better to report the news to draw the Google traffic, and then update the story with confirmation or denials later.

Report then verify

Some self-proclaimed social media experts say this is actually how it should be done. For them, rumours should be reported as such by news organizations on Twitter, because it’s better than the alternative of saying nothing and letting people think you’re just unaware of the story.

I don’t know about that. There are lots of rumours out there, and reporting on all of them lowers the level of journalism significantly and can torpedo a news organization’s reputation. Do we want all news to be on the same level as celebrity gossip magazines, who breathlessly report scoops that might have as little as a 7% chance of being true?

Personally, I think there’s little value in repeating someone else’s scoop. (It’s better to just link to it – and if everyone did that there would be far more rewards in general for good reporting.) Better to focus on covering an issue with depth and contributing something original to the conversation.

But then I’m not the one who has to worry constantly about making sure my website’s page view statistics look good week-over-week.

The fallacy of the reliable source

Perhaps the most important lesson to arise out of the Burns and Lightfoot screwups is that just because a source is well-placed and honest doesn’t mean they’re right. Cliff Fletcher and Ronnie Hawkins aren’t journalists, but they were treated as if they were. Being friends of the not-deceased, their words were considered golden, requiring no verification.

It’s important to track the source of information, and to ask anyone who doesn’t know something first-hand where their information came from – then go to that source and repeat the process.

But I’m not naive enough to think this is actually going to happen.

Despite what they teach you in journalism school about getting three sources for every story, many stories are single-sourced. That brief in the paper about the fatal car accident? Straight out of the mouth of the Montreal police or SQ media relations person. That business earnings brief? Rewritten corporate press release. The sports league standings? From the league itself.

It’s understandable. In many cases it’s just impractical to verify information, particularly when the source is almost always right and there’s no reason why it would intentionally deceive.

The rarity of active deception is actively exploited by journalists. Few of us check driver’s licenses when asking for a name, or independently verify information in an official computerized listing. We’ll double-check to see if a celebrity Twitter account is really that celebrity, but if it’s got one of those “verified” badges on it we’ll trust that Twitter has already done the work for us.

This isn’t just a problem for the “lamestream” media. New media and social media have the same implicit trust in their sources, and the vast majority of Twitter users (myself included) will pass on information that came from a single reliable source.

Applying a rigid three-source rule to all information reported in the news media is simply impractical. (Heck, many of the so-called facts in this blog post have only one source, and some have none.) What is practical, however, is applying a rigid attribution policy, where breaking news is properly sourced and information can be traced to its origin. Instead of saying “according to multiple reports”, make it clear: “TSN and CTV are reporting”.

After all, a story that says “A story on TSN’s website reports Pat Burns has died” is factually correct.

Combined with a robust skepticism of any information that doesn’t come from an official source, and a bit of caution about reporting news as important as someone’s death, this can hopefully significantly reduce the appearance of such errors in the future.

And maybe – just maybe – news organizations can become more trustworthy, even when they get it wrong.

There’s something about Terra

My little brother graduated from high school last week.

Well, actually, he didn’t graduate from high school, he just had his graduation ceremony. Because graduation ceremonies happen before final exams are graded (or even during the school year, with classes still to come), students are put through a ceremony and given a fake diploma as they cross the stage to shake hands with their principal. The real diploma comes later, unceremoniously, in the mail. Unless they failed, of course, at which point the ceremony becomes meaningless.

Anyway, after the ceremony, my brother began his summer vacation with his grandmother off-island, and since it was late and I was in the West Island, I decided to stay the night, sleeping in his room.

I noticed above his bed was a poster of the planets (including Pluto, though with a note about its current status) by a company called Eurographics. Each planet on the poster included scientific details about it, such as how many moons it has, what its gravity is and what its average temperature is.

I looked at the one for “Terra” (names are in Latin, while other information uses pictograms so it can be understood in different languages). Something there just didn’t seem right.

Can you point it out?

UPDATE: You folks are fast, and you’re all right. Apparently the fine folks behind this poster got oxygen (O2) confused with carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide represents about 0.04% of Earth’s atmosphere, and would be lethal at 20%, particularly if there’s no oxygen to breathe.

Life imitates art

Metro article, Thursday May 27, Page 6

Let’s put aside for a second that an article was written based entirely off a Facebook group with a few thousand members (actually I found four of them, the largest with more than 145,000 members), what’s interesting here is the photo that accompanies it (spotted by a commenter in the previous post). It’s not a photo of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, but rather one of actors Misha Collins and Laura Prepon portraying Bernardo and Homolka in the 2006 film Karla:

Misha Collins and Laura Prepon try their best to be creepy in Karla

From this I can draw only two conclusions:

1. These actors resemble their subjects much more than I think they do;

2. Editors at Metro are so young they have no idea what Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo look like

The real Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka (right?)