Media | Oops

April 19, 2005

Corrections 4/11-4/18

Papal impieties, paraphrase failures, Marion Jones, and other enlightening and entertaining media corrections.

David Goldenberg

Every week, Gelf combs through media corrections for the funniest and most enlightening. Sometimes journalism reveals more in its mishaps than in its success. Gelf makes mistakes, too, and when we do, we'll disclose them here.

The text in italics is Gelf's; everything else is a direct quote from the publication.

Journalistic Clubbing

Boston Globe, April 15: Editor's Note: An article by a freelance writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Wednesday's Globe said that the season's hunt for baby seals off Newfoundland had begun the previous day. In fact, the hunt did not begin that day; it was delayed by bad weather, and is scheduled to begin today, weather permitting. The article included details of the day's hunt as if it had taken place and without attribution or other sourcing, as if the writer had witnessed the scene personally. Details included the number of hunters, a description of the scene, and the approximate age of the cubs. The author's failure to accurately report the status of the hunt and her fabrication of details at the scene are clear violations of the Globe's journalistic standards. Because the freelancer was not reporting from the scene, Globe editors should have demanded attribution for any details she provided about the hunt itself. The story should not have been published in the Globe, and the Globe has discontinued use of the freelancer.

The story, which has been removed from the Globe website, began: “Over the vigorous protests of international animal-welfare organizations, the largest seal hunt in a half-century resumed yesterday off Newfoundland and Labrador. Hunters on about 300 boats converged on ice floes, shooting harp seal cubs by the hundreds, as the ice and water turned red. Most of the seals were less than 6 weeks old.”

The Washington Post, Reuters, and the Boston Herald ran pieces about the slip-up. All noted that Globe editors knew that freelancer Barbara Stewart was reporting long-distance about the hunt and had written the story before the event was supposed to take place. (The seal hunt was delayed at the last minute, which was why her description became a premonition.) So it seems that the Globe would have been OK with how the story was reported if there had been no delay, even though this type of advance-reporting (some might call it fiction-writing) is what sparked the Mitch Albom scandal addressed by Gelf in last week's Oops column.

In a follow-up article in the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz quotes from an email from Stewart, who wrote candidly to him about the situation: “The whole situation, while resulting from an egregious, massive, stupid [screwup] on my part, unbelievable carelessness, was nevertheless not malicious fabrication as in: pretending I was there and deliberately making up a whole scene and attempting to pass it off. It was stupider and more boring and more flat out dumb on my part. Quite dumb. Remarkably dumb. But not vicious and not really a scandal, for heaven's sake.’"

Like the Red Sox, but Good

Washington Post, April 11: The April 8 Weekend review of the movie "Fever Pitch" incorrectly described the Nick Hornby memoir of the same name as a novel.

The author of the article wrote that the Arsenal of Hornby’s novel was “the Red sox of British soccer” (a phrase also used by the Associated Press), because, among other reasons, the two have both endured “legendary losing streaks.” A brief tour of Arsenal’s storied history at the team website shows Gunners to be more Yankees than Bad News Bears, especially after Hornby's book was published—in 2003-2004, they went undefeated through 49 games, a record for the English Premiership.

Damned if You Do It

Baltimore Sun, April 13: An article Sunday about the Catholic Church's doctrine on artificial contraception incorrectly quoted the Rev. Lawrence P. Adamczyk as stating that Catholics who use artificial birth control are committing a "grave sin." In fact, Adamczyk said it was a "grave matter" that would only be considered a "mortal sin" if the person violated the ban with full knowledge of Church teaching and consent.

According to the St. Thomas Aquinas Forum, there are two types of sin: mortal and venial, the latter of which is frowned upon but preferable to the former. A venial sin can graduate to a mortal one once the sinner knows that what he or she is doing, like using contraception, is a “grave matter” and against Church teachings. Adamcyzk told the Sun, "People who die in a state of mortal sin suffer eternal separation from God, which we would call hell.”

Actually, Just Wrong

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 14: The Missouri Court of Appeals ruled that a trial judge was correct in voiding former Enterprise Rent-A-Car executive Thomas P. Dunn's $4 million jury award for wrongful termination. Dunn failed to cite a law or public policy that Enterprise violated or would have violated, both courts ruled. A story in Wednesday's Business section was unclear.

The original article was clear but incorrect: “The Missouri Court of Appeals said Tuesday that the judge in the first trial erred by dismissing Dunn's claims that he was fired for raising questions about accounting practices he viewed as improper and refusing to go along with them.”

Paraphrased Nudity

KENS 5 Eyewitness News, April 13: Due to an editing error, a Tuesday story regarding the firing of a substitute Judson teacher misquoted a school district spokesperson. Spokesman Sean Hoffmann should not have been directly quoted on a statement regarding the paperwork submission process in Judson ISD. This information should have appeared paraphrased.

This article about substitute teacher Laura Barrera, who was fired for allegedly showing high-school students nude pictures of herself on her cell phone, reported that there were allegations that she had done the same thing just a month earlier with students at a middle school in the same district, but that the paperwork of the incident had not yet surfaced. Among the paraphrased excuses made by Hoffman (the original article has disappeared from the internet) is this gem: “But, this paperwork may have reached the system's office a little slower than usual because the middle school was just coming off of Christmas break and things were hectic, Hoffmann said.”

Voluntary Head Removal

Miami Herald, April 12: A story about Telemundo President Don Browne in Sunday's Money section inaccurately portrayed the circumstances under which he left his position as acting president of NBC news in 1993. At the time, Browne had participated in an investigation of a flawed Dateline NBC report about General Motors trucks and had instituted new operating guidelines for the show. He then voluntarily rejoined his family in Miami, taking the reins of NBC affiliate WTVJ.

The original article reported, “In the ensuing scandal, heads rolled and Browne's was one of them.”

How About Neither?

CBC News, April 12: A CBC News Online story published on April 11, 2005, mistakenly confused the terms "parole" and "probation." Initially, we reported that a defence lawyer had requested "a conditional sentence and parole," which it turns out, is an impossible combination. The lawyer had, in fact, requested "a conditional sentence and probation." According to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Correctional Services, parole is "a conditional release from a correctional institution." You need to be imprisoned to be granted parole. A conditional sentence, on the other hand, "is served in the community rather than in custody." Probation allows a convicted offender to remain in the community subject to certain conditions and under the supervision of a probation officer.

For the defendant—who pled guilty to manslaughter after her two-year old daughter died from dehydration after she was left alone for 33 hours—none of this semantic distinction mattered. She was sentenced to three years in prison.

Still Pretty Freaking Hot

NPR, April 11: Temperatures in Iraq do not reach 140 degrees in summer, as reported. The highest temperature ever recorded anywhere is 136. Baghdad in the middle of summer averages 110.

Pope Impius

Newport News Daily Press, April 15: An article in Saturday’s front section incorrectly quoted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The correct quote is, “Today we bury his remains in the Earth as a seed of immortality.”

Credit Regret The Error for finding and scanning this one. In the original article, Ratzinger was quoted as saying about the Pope, “Today we bury his remains in the Earth as a seed of immorality.”

An astute reader wrote the Daily News to ask, “I know the Roman Catholic Church has had its problems lately, but were the pope's remains really buried ‘as a seed of immorality?’ ”

An editor responded, “If it was a pop quiz, you passed. We failed. We need to do a better job of editing stories, even stories sent to us by wire services that have been edited at other places. Spell-check programs find misspellings that aren't real words, but it takes a sharp editor to catch a misspelling that puts the wrong word in a sentence. In these instances, I sincerely hope the real quote was ‘a seed of immortality.’ ” Incidentally, though this error may have indeed originated with a wire service, a Google search didn't turn up any instances of the mistranscribed quote.

UPDATE: Ratzinger was elected pope Tuesday. (CNN)

Now I Feel Dense

Wall Street Journal, April 15: The infinity of prime numbers is denser than that of square numbers, and the infinity of even numbers is denser than that of numbers divisible by 9. The April 8 Science Journal column on prime numbers used the less precise term "bigger."

First Young, Then Gray

San Francisco Chronicle, April 18: In stories April 17-18 about Marion Jones' performance at the Mount San Antonio College Relays, The Associated Press erroneously attributed comments to 1992 Olympic champion Kevin Young and wrongly described him as the former world-record holder in the 400 hurdles. Young still holds that record. He did not attend the meet in which Jones finished sixth in the 400 meters, and he did not comment on her performance. The comments about Jones' performance were made by five-time Olympian Johnny Gray, who was a spectator at the meet. He said Jones has a lot of work to do to return to her level of performance at the 2000 Olympics.

According to the article, Gray also said, “If she doesn't compete at that level, that will bring all the skeptics.” Why the Chronicle needed to run an AP story about an event taking place in California is unclear, especially after one of their staff writers wrote an engaging piece about Jones the previous day. More worrying: AP stories about the Golden State Warriors have also started to show up in their sports pages.

The Newspaper of Record

New York Times, April 12: The "Arts, Briefly" column yesterday included a report about ABC's decision to replace "Boston Legal" with "Grey's Anatomy" for the rest of the television season. The report, by Mark Washburn, was published in North Carolina on Sunday in The Charlotte Observer. An editor at The Times e-mailed it to colleagues for reference, and it was printed in error by The Times.

In Editor & Publisher, Graham Webster gives more details of the embarrassing mix-up and talks with Jim Schachter, deputy culture editor at the New York Times. “The mistake wasn't exactly plagiarism, as Washburn's byline did appear with his work. ‘I guess it's outright theft, is the best way to put it,’ Schachter said. ‘And the Times regrets the act of outright theft.’ ”

Sidebar Blues

ESPN’s Peter Gammons wrote a public apology (which was featured prominently on after he wrote a sidebar to a column in which entire sentences were lifted from an article about the Dodgers in the Los Angeles Times.

In his apology to readers, Gammons wrote: “When I filed the column, however, I inadvertently and mistakenly omitted credit and sourcing to the Los Angeles Times. I thought I had sourced the Times as I wrote the column, and had not. Obviously, I should have. It was brought to my attention late Wednesday night by editors, who removed the "sidebar" while seeking clarification. I immediately admitted the mistake and asked that it be corrected.”

The blog Dodger Thoughts was among the first to notice the similarities between the articles after Gammons’s was published on April 13. Jon Weisman posted five sentences from each article which are almost identical (the small differences may be due to editors).

Digging Deeper

As more reporters dig into Eric Slater’s Los Angeles Times article about Chico State (which Gelf has been covering for the past two weeks), more fishy details are starting to emerge. The Times has sent Jim Newton to the college to see if Slater ever actually visited the school and, if so, to try to find his sources. LA Observed is collecting dirt on the mess, and has printed Slater’s most recent letter to the press, in which he talks about riding his motorcycle and writing Pulitzer-prize worthy articles from the desert, and notes, “I hope you also know I would never make up a source—not now, not ever.”

In the San Francisco Chronicle, C.W. Nevius writes that many of Slater’s sources are suspicious: “David Little, editor of the Chico Enterprise Record, says his journalistic antenna went up immediately. Slater quoted a tipsy, underage student walking out of the Crazy Horse Saloon (a bar so strict on proper IDs that it has a scanner to check for fakes, according to Bleske and others) and a former Playboy bunny walking to a bar who told Slater she posed nude for the magazine. Those and other students offer perfect, well-phrased quotes, but none will identify herself.”

UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times said Tuesday it had dismissed Slater. He told the Chico Enterprise-Record that he has retained the services of a wrongful-termination attorney.

—Carl Bialik contributed to this article.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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