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This just in: the factors behind newspapers' rush to contrition

By Randy DotingaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 24, 2004



To judge from this year's rash of apologetic postmortems, American newspapers are a very sorry bunch.

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The New York Times acknowledged downplaying skepticism about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. USA Today explored how it let a top foreign correspondent fool editors for years with fake reports. Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a front-page story that said the newspaper's prewar coverage "in hindsight looks strikingly one-sided at times." And, perhaps most amazingly, a Kentucky newspaper in July admitted that it had virtually failed to cover the civil rights movement.

Some of this, of course, is damage control in an era when the news media are struggling to restore faltering credibility with readers. But beyond that, there's a debate over what this trend signifies - a mere bout of self-analysis that amounts to navel-gazing, or a break with the newspaper industry's tradition of considering itself above reproach. "We have a culture of thinking that we're always right," says Arlene Morgan, associate dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and former assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

In reality, of course, newspapers make plenty of blunders, from confusing actress Angelica Huston's last name with the largest city in Texas to declaring that President Bush carried a fake turkey to soldiers in Iraq last Thanksgiving. (He didn't.)

Readers notice the errors. In 1999, a landmark industry report found that nearly a quarter of newspaper readers surveyed discovered factual errors in newspapers each week; 73 percent said they'd become more skeptical of media accuracy. Then, last year, the credibility of the press fell even further when alert journalists began exposing colleagues who fabricated and plagiarized their stories.

In a world where Jayson Blair became fodder for a David Letterman Top 10 list, it's perhaps not surprising that The New York Times, in particular, has been sensitive about mistakes. Among other things, it hired a reader's representative who promptly annoyed staffers with a series of critical columns.

In addition to postscandal damage control, there's another factor in the growing list of mea culpas, according to Geneva Overholser, faculty member at the Missouri School of Journalism. The Internet, she says, gives critics a louder voice than they had in the past, when they needed access to a printing press to spread their opinions across the country. "Each of these criticisms is far more powerful than it used to be," she says, "and in turn causes newspapers to feel more compelled to be transparent. That is a good thing."

Otto von Bismarck famously said that it's best not to see how laws or sausages are made - and some say the chaotic inner workings of newspapers shouldn't get a public airing, either. In many cases, however, readers seem to like knowing how editors make decisions. San Antonio Express-News editor Robert Rivard says his weekly column about the newspaper's successes and failures "goes a long way toward placating a lot of readers who have questions. What readers don't want is a vacuum, an information vacuum. They want to know the story behind the story."

Then again, some critics think newspapers have gone too far. In the influential online magazine Slate, media critic Jack Shafer ripped Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader for its "appetite for painless self- flagellation" after it explored the failure of its predecessors to cover the local impact of the civil rights movement. "If the Herald-Leader had any real editorial guts," Mr. Shafer writes, "it would exhume a defective story from five years ago - a story touched by its current crew of editors and reporters - and run it through the Revisionator."

Mr. Rivard agrees that the past doesn't always need to be rehashed. "You have to keep it contemporary," he says.

Journalists also have to be careful to avoid "fawning over one another as though the entire world is as interested in us as we are," Ms. Overholser says.

Whether extensive self-analysis is good or bad, much of the American media remains untouched by regular displays of contrition. Many newspapers, like The Christian Science Monitor, communicate directly with readers only through occasional editor's columns or published corrections when substantial mistakes are uncovered. The Monitor, for instance, ran a front-page correction and apology after publishing a story about a British member of Parliament that turned out to be based on forged documents. Just a few dozen of the nation's 1,500 daily newspapers have ombudsmen or reader's representatives, and they're virtually unheard of in the broadcast industry.

Why? Thin skin is one explanation, but lack of money is another. Overholser admits that, when she was editor of The Des Moines Register, she would rather have spent $40,000 to hire a police reporter than an ombudsman.

Even if newspapers do examine themselves, that's no guarantee of improvement. "Do you really fix the systemic problems of not listening to your staff, of shutting down when people are concerned about certain ethical practices?" asks Ms. Morgan. "Are you really fixing the problem and then disclosing to the public how you fixed it?"

Halfhearted efforts, she says, will risk being like many of the recent internal exposés - "more public relations than public information."

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