Tagged: This American Life

Proof that it’s never to late to correct a factual error

The New York Times this morning published a correction of a story it ran 161 years ago, on January 20, 1853:

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The Times does take its responsibility for factual accuracy seriously. This whimsical correction of two, 161-year-old spelling errors was one of nine corrections it published today. Five years ago, at the urging of Contrarian and Provincial Court Judge Anne Derrick, the Times corrected its obituary of Donald Marshall Jr. The original version of the Times obit had incorrectly described the circumstances surrounding the killing of Sandy Seale, the 16-year-old boy whom Marshall was falsely convicted of murdering.

For all they criticize others, journalists have notoriously thin skins. They hate admitting error. Certain local journals all but refuse to do so unless someone credibly threatens litigation. Yet here comes the august New York Times publishing fistsful of mea culpas day after day. Far from diminishing its credibility or exposing the paper as sloppy, this willingness to admit and correct mistakes enhances its stature.

The Times published tens of thousands of words a day about fast-breaking, important, often controversial events. It is not humanly possible to do that without making mistakes. By correcting them forthrightly, the Times show readers a commitment to get things right.

To be sure, many critics say the Times gets a lot of big things wrong, such as its reluctance to apply the term “torture” to brutal tactics employed by the US Military. I agree with some of this criticism, but they are matters of editorial judgment and opinion. I am still grateful for the paper’s determination to ferret out and fix even the smallest factual mistakes.

The gold standard for correction goes to the Public Radio International program This American Life, which discovered it had been grossly misled by a freelancer in an episode that purported to expose abuse of factory workers in China. The program didn’t merely correct, retract, and apologize for the story. It did all of those things, but it also devoted a full hour to a meticulous examination of the fabrication, and its producers’ failure to realize they were being hoodwinked. The correction is a remarkable piece of journalism in its candour, thoroughness, and willingness to shine an unflattering spotlight on its own journalistic failings. Ironically, it gave me an almost unshakable trust in the program. You can listen to the correction here, and download the transcript here. You can subscribe to the podcast with iTunes or any podcast app.


Why papers sometimes miss stories

Tim Bousquet, pugnacious news editor of the Halifax news and entertainment weekly, The Coast, responds to Contrarian’s chiding of local media for failing to cover issues surrounding The Old Mill’s closure.

Hardly a week goes by that someone isn’t asking me — usually angrily — “Why isn’t The Coast covering issue X???”

There are a variety of reasons. The Coast — which is basically me, plus whatever freelancers I can lure with a minuscule budget, and the occasional intern — isn’t covering an issue.

Sometimes the issues are too far afield, out of our distribution area, so aren’t a priority. Sometimes other media are covering the issue adequately, and it would be silly for The Coast to extend our limited resources to duplicate the effort. Sometimes the issue doesn’t fit our mandate — the unending stream of young people riding/biking/pogo-sticking across Canada to raise money for the disease of the week, for example. Sometimes, believe it or not, we (I) simply don’t have the expertise or background to adequately report on an issue.

And then, sometimes, we might be inclined to report on an issue, but simply don’t know about it.

Which brings me to the “why isn’t The Coast covering the Sobeys/Old mill” thing. See, I even live the neighbourhood, and vaguely (if distantly) was aware that the Old Mill was closing. I knew nothing of the history of the place, and knew nothing about Sobeys plans.

Things like closing neighbourhood stores in poor neighbourhoods do indeed interest me, and I’d love to get some Coast perspective on them… but I can’t write about them, if I don’t know about them. I guess it’s far easier for some unnamed guy to snipe from the sidelines about how stupid/lazy/hypocritical The Coast is, than it is to pick up the phone and say, “Hey Tim! There’s an issue you might be interested in, let me fill you in…” or better yet, seeing how he’s a journalist, you know, *pitching a story about it.*

Jeebus Christ on a stick, I have a lot of shit on my plate, and can’t be on everything. The Chronicle has a bazillion people in its newsroom and misses things. Anyway, even though it was brought to my attention in a less than collegial manner, rest assured that now that I know about the Sobeys closing, I’ve assigned a writer to the story. Too bad your learned correspondent wasn’t interested in writing the story himself, but so it goes.

Contrarian readers unfamiliar with The Coast should know that, by Bousquet standards, the passage above constitutes a fairly restrained response to the poke we gave The Coast and its brethren. Also, notably, Tim’s explanation mirrors the comments that began our post: internet-induced turmoil in the news-gathering business has made it harder to find good reporting and good writing on local issue. In the US, several major newspapers have notoriously been outsourcing local news coverage to writer/researchers in the Philippines, as reported by This American Life and the Poynter Institute. By comparison, Nova Scotia is a local news Nirvana.

Finally, as noted here yesterday, OpenFile Halifax’s Bethany Horne has done what seems to be a definitive roundup of all things Old Mill- and Sobeys-related.

These Canadian fans

The surprisingly (to me) young audience that gathered Thursday night at Empire’s Park Lane Cinema in Halifax to see a simulcast of the American Public Radio program This American Life.

The slightly older audience that gathered for the actual show at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City:

Given the affection for radio among Canada’s chattering classes, I’m surprised at how many Nova Scotians have never heard of This American Life, a superb one-hour program produced each week at WBEZ in Chicago. A typical episode features a collection  documentaries, essays, readings, memoirs, and found footage loosely grouped around a single theme. By times quirky, funny, and serious, it’s one of the reasons I spend more time listening to podcasts these days than to the CBC.

The live show featured the writer David Sedaris, a short film by Mike Mike Birbiglia, music by the Chicago group OK Go, and a hilarious routine by comedian Tig Notaro about a series of chance encounters she had with singer Taylor Dayne. Sample TAL’s archive of 463 shows or subscribe to the podcast.