There’s an old adage amongst newspaper folk: “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.”
Leonard Pitts over at the Miami Herald should have taken that advice. In a recent column, he discussed the chilling effect of having members of the Department of Homeland Security come in to a public library, loudly announce that surfing for pornography on the library’s public terminals is illegal then singling out one individual who was looking at said material for a little talking to.
This actually happened in Bethesda, MD. I confirmed this by doing a Google News search using the library’s name. I found an article referencing the incident about four links down headlined “Guards reassigned in library porn case“.
Turns out the two DHL officers were actually county officers for the county Department of Homeland Security. Questions as to why a county needs officers for such a department aside, the point here is that the federal government had absolutely nothing to do with this. Which pretty much blows Pitts’ column right out of the water.
We tend to trust newspapers and news agencies over blogs and such for a reason – they have a well-established editorial system in place. A writer submits their story idea to an editor who then approves it. Once the article is written, the editor looks it over and, well, edits it. In most large organizations (of which the Miami Herald is one) the article is then sent to a fact-checker for accuracy. Once everyone has given it the OK, it’s pasted into the newspaper layout, sent to the printer then tossed on your doorstep. This is the way it’s been done for decades.
So how did such an erroneous article get into the paper? Worse, how did it get syndicated? If you look at the link above, it’s not from the Herald at all – it’s from the Buffalo News.
Once could argue that, because it’s a column and, therefore, an opinion piece it didn’t really need to be fact-checked. Anyone who has ever survived a libel suit, however, can tell you that’s hogwash.
Given the current political climate, I’d think these types of mistakes would be avoided at all costs. The argument that, in a fast-paced 24-hour news cycle, not everything that hits the streets can be perfect could be made here if this was a news article. But it wasn’t. It was an opinion piece remarking on an event that took place more than a week previous to the date the article appeared. And the pressure of maintaining a daily column deadline doesn’t cut it for me – I spent two years in a news room ofting submitting multiple un-related daily news stories for publication in the same day. Columnists have it easy.
I do believe the media has a responsibility to report the facts to us. I believe they have a responsibility to show us the truth to things. When news agencies have a 24-hour outlet, like a cable news channel or a website, I can accept a certain level of innacuracy, provided they correct it as quickly as they learn the truth and own up to the mistake. When a fairly well-known columnist at a daily newspaper prints a column based entirely on the clear misinterpretation of the facts, though, it indicates an internal failure that calls into question the veracity of everything they print. I don’t think that’s hyperbolic – if they can’t properly fact-check a regular column about a week-old story, how can we expect them to get the breaking news right? Pitts did screw up, but there’s an entire chain of responsibility at fault here and, thanks to syndication, its effects ripple throughout the country and the industry.