In a Facebook post, Barbara Tyler is merciless.
“Hey, did anyone think of proofreading your headline today before the paper went to press? I am pretty sure Trump did not replace his vice president. Fake news at its best. Sometimes I wonder why I continue to subscribe to your paper.”
Tyler was responding to an extraordinary slip-up by The Bryan College-Station Eagle. The Texas newspaper’s top headline on Feb. 21 incorrectly indicated that Lt. Gen. McMaster would be replacing Vice President Mike Pence — rather than the outgoing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Media corrections are usually met with a mixture of guffaws and finger-wagging, even though fessing up to errors in public is the best way journalists can hold themselves accountable. (At Poynter, we love media corrections).
Something seems to have changed in recent months, however.
Corrected articles are being heralded by critics of mainstream media as evidence that they, too, publish fake news. The term was appropriated by President Trump and disaffected readers to denote any journalistic misstep (as predicted by John Herrman back in November). This is significantly different from its original definition: willingly fabricated articles constructed primarily for financial gain.
Kelly Brown, the editor of The Eagle, published an apology last week that clearly reflected this new milieu of cynicism and distrust.
“The Eagle’s mistake was not a deliberate untruth or an alternative truth,” she wrote. “It was an error made on deadline without enough back-up to catch the oversight. That falls on me.”
Which raises the question: In readers’ eyes, is there a difference between “fake” news and wrong news? The credibility of traditional media outlets seems to hinge in large part on the answer to this question.
The Eagle’s error was embarrassing and prominent, but relatively harmless. Other media errors, like some fake news, have had a very real negative impact.
Six years ago, Capt. Mark Kelly was on a borrowed jet plane rushing from Houston to Tucson, Arizona when, alongside his mother and two daughters, he heard the news. NPR was reporting that his wife, Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords, had died after being shot in the head during a town hall meeting.
Still mid-air, Kelly got ahold of the congresswoman’s chief of staff, Pia Carusone. Carusone was in Tucson and could refute the NPR report. Giffords was in surgery, alive.
NPR made the call based on information from two sources: someone from the local sheriff’s office and a member of Congress. Both were wrong. NPR tried to correct its mistake. The next day it published an extensive apology from the executive editor for news. A revised ethics handbook issued a year later dedicated an entry to this incident.
Mark Stencel was NPR’s digital editor during the Tucson shooting. I heard him recount the story of this monumental mess-up for the first time in 2016 to a Duke journalism class.
Towards the end of his lecture, he choked up. Five years had passed since that day; his remorse had not.
The shooting was on a Saturday, and Stencel was still at home calling in reinforcements when NPR made the mistake. While on the phone with his boss, his eye caught the chyron on MSNBC carrying the NPR report.
“It was a big system failure,” he told me when we spoke for this article. Communications and editing processes failed.
“This was a really painful and horrible mistake,” Stencel said. “And as bad as we felt about it, we knew we had made a lot of other people feel a lot worse. It was just awful.
Less than six months later, Stencel attended a National Press Club luncheon. The main speaker was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
Also at the luncheon was Kelly, who had recently announced his retirement from the space agency.
NPR had apologized to Kelly in January; Stencel did so again. While the astronaut stressed the report had been devastating for him and his family, he was also “just so remarkably gracious,” Stencel recalls. (Americans for Responsible Solutions, the gun violence advocacy organization that Kelly has since co-founded, did not return an email seeking a comment to this story).
The two errors — and their corrections — are six years apart, almost to the date.
NPR’s 2011 Facebook post linking to the executive editor’s apology has 379 comments. Several commenters were upset, and a handful suggested systemic flaws led the organization to jump to conclusions. No one, however, accused NPR of deliberately misinforming the public. Many were appreciative of the apology.
The Eagle’s apology gathered far fewer comments. But on both the website and Facebook, a handful of readers were denouncing the mistake as fake news.
One reader, Brown noted in her apology, determined that the McMaster-Pence slip-up was evidence The Eagle was “alt-left liberal media pushing fake news.”
One commenter wrote “Right, The Eagle is a typical fake news liberal site that posts propaganda and B.S. How pathetic you are to be so ignorant and unprofessional.” Another asked, “How could anyone miss a front page title like that?? Knowing you were against Trump. Just proves there is fake news out there.”
Brown told Poynter that several early calls and emails the newsroom were in this timbre. They were “fairly ugly, with many not seeing this as a slip-up or oversight,” she said.
Angered readers suggested the Eagle error was either aimed at confusing the public, or evidence that “subconsciously, the copy editor must have wished that Pence was being replaced.”
Neither of these scenarios was true. The copy editor had written a headline about Pence further down on the front page before moving to the main story; the vice president was still in the back of their mind. The paper usually has two copy-editors, but not that night. An interim city editor proofing pages didn’t spot the error.
It was an inexcusable mistake, but not a premeditated one.
With journalists themselves disagreeing over the meaning of the term fake news, it is not surprising that some readers think it should also apply to corrected media errors.
Is there a difference between the two? It’s worth asking, said Mark Memmott, NPR’s supervising senior editor for standards and practices.
“I don’t think it’s that obvious a question,” he said.
“To me, a mistake by a credible news organization is going to happen,” he said. “Mistakes will happen. We are human beings. A credible news organization sets out to tell the truth. Occasionally it will make mistakes. Those who are spreading the fake news aren’t worried about the truth.”
Brown and Stencel also think errors are fundamentally different from fake news.
“There’s certainly a difference in intent,” Stencel said. “We sure as hell weren’t trying to mislead anybody.”
“Our error was based on actual reporting and grounded in talking to people, not making assumptions. Those people were wrong and we didn’t vet what they told us as aggressively as we should have. But it was based on real reporting…one of our sources was the sheriff’s office.”
“What could the paper possibly gain by printing something so outrageously incorrect?” Brown said. “Absolutely nothing. It hurts our credibility.”
The distinction between fake news and wrong news echoes that between a falsehood and a lie in the political sphere, also a subject of discussion recently.
Not all readers are resorting to shouting “fake news,” though. Many Eagle readers reacted the same way that NPR’s listeners did in 2011.
Brown published her phone number in The Eagle’s apology and promised to return any calls that went to voicemail. The morning after the column was published in print, Brown’s work phone had received more missed calls than it could acknowledge — it simply stated “100+” — and 85 voicemails, of which only 40 had been stored.
Brown received calls from people who identified with making big mistakes, including a retired police officer.
“Tell your copy editor this: We once served a warrant at the wrong address. That could have gotten one of us killed. Fortunately for all involved, we were fine, but the point is our mistakes can get us killed. Your mistakes can’t.”
Memmott doesn’t think fake news-calling has become the norm, either.
“A minority want to use the fact that we do make mistakes and that we do correct…as evidence against us for what they see as quote-unquote fake news,” he said. “But I don’t think a majority have changed…A majority of people appreciate the fact that we correct the mistakes we make.”
“Mistakes are not going to go away, agrees Stencel.
“Given what it is that we are trying to do, news organizations are going to make mistakes,” he says. “It is an unavoidable byproduct of the reporting process, like nuclear waste. That’s why corrections are so important.”
“Corrections policies are not universally adopted or uniformly implemented across newsrooms. In many countries, reporting errors are usually dispatched with stealth edits or unannounced takedowns of the incriminating article.
During the terrorist attacks that rocked Europe in 2016, for instance, several Italian media outlets mistakenly used photos from other incidents to accompany the news. To my knowledge, they never apologized. One article still shows gruesome photos from a Johannesburg robbery in an article about the Munich Olympia mall shooting last summer.
No major Italian publication has a corrections policy maintained with anywhere near the rigor of that managed by major media outlets in the United Kingdom and United States. Even within the U.S., corrections are handled very heterogeneously.
With trust in the media at record lows, rigorous corrections policies need to be defended and expanded.
This may be hard because corrections often attract larger audiences than the original stories — to content that is embarrassing for the news organization. The Eagle’s apology was still the second most-read piece on the website five days after it was published. It drew in about five times as much traffic as an average article, Brown said. Poynter’s annual roundups of media corrections are always a hit with readers.
“Lol #fakenews” cannot become a standard, reflexive reaction to media corrections, though.
Corrections are a fundamental building block for trustworthy journalism, according to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Newsrooms that publish corrections more transparently should be rewarded, not punished.
More pre-publication fact-checking should be the key discriminant between credible news organizations and other online information sources. But to presume that all errors can be prevented is to misunderstand human nature.
“We all hope that an emphasis on getting things right the first time will help us avoid mistakes, but it will never eliminate them,” said Memmott.
In this more skeptical ecosystem, media outlets that wish to be taken as credible need to redouble efforts to communicate the uncertainty that hounds credible reporting.
In 2011, NPR’s live blog carried the warning “As happens when a story is just breaking, there are conflicting reports at this moment about what has happened.”
Last year, during the Orlando shooting, the warning was more prominent and more detailed:
“This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.”
Greater openness with readers also requires being available when things go wrong. Brown felt sharing her phone number was a an important part of cleaning up after The Eagle’s mistake.
“We can write explanations all day long, but a conversation tends to go further and allows the reader to ask questions and for us to respond.”
Stencel, now the co-director of the Duke Reporters’ Lab, continues talking about that fateful winter day in 2011.
“It’s not just me doing six years of penance,” he says.
“One thing we try to do in this business is we try to learn from our mistakes. And that is another big difference between real news and fake news.”
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly quoted Stencel. He said “a lot worse,” not “a lot worst.” We apologize for the error.