Humans make mistakes every day. In some professions, errors can be shrugged off as costly mistakes. “Geez, it looks like we’ve installed the processor incorrectly on the last 50,000 widgets. Need a re-do.” Nurses, doctors and others in the healthcare know much higher stakes: the tiniest missteps can put a life on the line. Hence, the humble checklist, so beloved by aviators, helps prevent an untold number of disasters. Journalists have an equivalent tool: it’s called fact-checking.
For good reason, the ghosts of lying journalists past haunted my undergraduate journalism education. Their names were spoken in a hushed tone. Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Rick Bragg. The Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times erupted at the end of my sophomore year. (Unfortunately, there’s a long list of offenders – updated through 2007 only – compiled by the Freedom Forum.) I personally think Mike Daisey should bear a scarlet letter, thespian or not. A life-or-death threat rarely looms above a journalist as she tweaks here, borrows a bit from there, and slaps in some fiction for good measure. So another conscious-rattling consequence should be clear for journalists who plagiarize and fictionalize: a swift and total exile from non-fiction forever. No question. No meaningless mea culpas. Night has fallen for the moment on a particular journalism foundation in my eyes. I appreciate their response to the situation.
So I mean what I say in my tweet:
— Kathleen Raven (@sci2mrow) February 14, 2013
When all of the Jonah Lehrer (#infoneeds) controversy erupted on Twitter yesterday, I rolled my eyes and kept on with work. Why give even more attention to someone (and possibly an organization) that is clearly trying a shock technique to get attention? (I regret that the Knight Foundation didn’t think through the scenario of not only giving Lehrer a platform, but paying him $20,000 speak.) But as I read posts and heard thoughts from my fellow science writers today, I realized I needed to add my voice to the crowd.
Every single factual error I’ve made in my journalism career (I started as a Georgia Press Association intern at rural newspaper in 1999) has been seared into my memory. I carry them with me and I relive them as lessons in miniature. But I am proud of the small proportion of mistakes out of what has been hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. I have written, with some breaks in between, for college newspapers, local newspapers, one local magazine, science publications and two dailies: The Statesville Record & Landmark and The Marietta Daily Journal for nearly 14 years.
As a journalist, I ask my sources tough questions. It is common sense to be completely transparent. A good journalist must be honest almost to a fault. That is very, very difficult to do. Smooth-talkers like Lehrer tear off another piece of the already much-battered public trust when they write fabricated stories, lie or simply don’t fact check. I refuse to be grouped into the “untrustworthy media.”
I’m sure I have made mistakes that no one ever alerted the publication to. Below are the ones I remember. I wish I could link to all of the articles, but some were published before online archiving began in earnest. Please, read all about them. I will do my best as a writer for “the public’s right to know” to avoid adding to the list.
1. Name misspellings (1999-2000)
2. A chart that incorrectly conveyed information (2001)
3. My story reported the opposite result of a vote at a city council meeting (2006)
4. When writing about high school test scores, I reported the inaccurate number of students who failed the test (2006)
5. Incorrect translation of percentages (2012)
6. The wrong amino acid sequence (2012)
7. Incorrect word use and wrong units of measurement (2012)