Thursday, August 6, 2009

That's The Way It Wasn't

This past Sunday, Clark Hoyt, the public editor of the New York Times, wrote a column chronicling the "especially embarrassing correction" the Times had to make after publishing an appraisal of the late Walter Cronkite, the legendary CBS news anchor. The appraisal contained seven separate errors, which no doubt would have caused anguish to Mr. Cronkite, a person who built his career on precision and detail in his reporting.

The cause, Mr. Hoyt said, was inadequate editing of a piece written in haste by a "television critic with a history of errors." Errors can happen, even with a phalanx of editors who should catch them. People make mistakes. Throw in ever-present deadline pressures, poor communication and perhaps even recent newsroom cutbacks throughout the country and the error potential rises dramatically. The Times and the critic, Alessandra Stanley, both acknowledged responsibility for the shortcomings.

Two things trouble me about the incident. The first is that a number of editors (as Mr. Hoyt explains it) either missed the errors or in some instances compounded them. Once again, deadlines were partially blamed, but this type of piece should have been written, fact-checked and edited well before Mr. Cronkite's death. That it was not points to poor news management, which to me ranks equally in dishonor with the errors themselves.

What also bothers me is the seeming disconnect in Mr. Hoyt's description of Ms. Stanley. He initially notes her "history of errors," pointing out that she made so many errors in 2005 that the Times assigned her a single copy editor to check her facts. Then, a few paragraphs later, he says that she is "a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television." No disrespect intended to Ms. Stanley, but I have a difficult time reconciling "intellectual heft" with "history of errors," particularly for a journalist. That's like saying "I admire Dr. Stephen Hawking's intellectual heft in physics, but we have to keep telling him that two plus two is four, not five."

The Times has added an editor in the obituary department and Ms. Stanley is once again assigned special editing help. That's the way it is with journalism in the 21st century.

Note: I have edited and fact-checked the above piece. I hope it is error-free.


Deb said...

Isn't there somewhere a "death watch" list where not only do publications place there odds (not actual bets but best guesses) about who might die in the next 1, 5, and 10 years; and tidbits are collected to fill a potential obituary or death feature story? Okay, is my question long enough? I think I remember reading about this and whether it was considered morbid or not.

7sky said...

Usually, good news management would dictate having a list of prominent people in a news outlet's primary sphere of influence (local, regional, national) and have obits at least rough-drafted for them. That way, when a death occurs, you're more prepared to quickly publish broadcast or publish a factually-correct piece that doesn't fall victim to the deadline pressures that partially contributed to the Cronkite fiasco at the Times.

I suppose publications have "odds lists," but the technique above has been recognized for years (that's why media people have the best obits); even more important in the internet era.

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