Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

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September 23, 2005

Floodwater, Anyone?

What should Katrina's survivors drink? Don't look to the media for a safe answer. Plus: source-blowing; doctors' conflicts of interest; sperm kebabs; and other enlightening and entertaining media corrections.

Carl Bialik

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Paul Antonson
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.

Don't Drink the Water

Slate, September 9: In a Sept. 2 "Explainer," Daniel Engber originally failed to note that Lake Pontchartrain is a brackish lake, meaning that it has more salt than freshwater, but less than the ocean. The article said "Yes—you could and you should" drink the floodwater if you were dying of thirst. This statement is incorrect. The correct answer, now noted in the piece, is "Yes, if it's not too briny." Whether or not floodwater actually can save your life depends on its salinity. In order to clarify the answer, the author has added the following new information:
1. It is possible that the run-off from the lake contains so much salt (more than 8 parts per thousand) that drinking it would cause further dehydration rather than rehydration.
2. It is also possible that the floodwater could contain salt at a concentration (around 5 parts per thousand) that actually makes it more helpful than freshwater would be in staving off dehydration. (Some salt in fluid helps the body absorb water.)
3. The article can't determine whether the floodwater would cause dehydration or rehydration because it is difficult to ascertain the exact salt content of the floodwater. A sidebar explains how various factors could have increased or decreased its salinity. The water that flooded New Orleans may have come from the top of the lake, which is less salty than the bottom. The storm may also have diluted the floodwater. Either of these occurrences would have helped to lower the salinity of the floodwater. On the other hand, water from the Gulf of Mexico could have been blown in by Katrina, increasing the salinity of the floodwater. And Katrina could have churned the water in Lake Pontchartrain such that saltier water on the bottom of the lake got into the floodwater. Either of these occurrences would have made the floodwater more salty.
The pithy style of Slate's "Explainer" is well-suited for examinations of network television's scheduling quirks; but more nuance would better serve thirsty hurricane refugees.

Anonymice

Washington Post, September 5: A Sept. 4 article on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina incorrectly said that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) had not declared a state of emergency. She declared an emergency on Aug. 26.
As is often the case, the correction doesn't tell the whole story. The original article cited what was a checkable fact to a "senior Bush official." The state of emergency had been declared a week before. As Editor & Publisher wrote, "This, of course, was meant to make the governor look foolish and spread the blame around for the disastrous response to the disaster, though it was hard to imagine on what grounds the newspaper would quote an unnamed source in this case." Post national editor told Post media writer Howard Kurtz—ably covering his own paper's misdeeds—"We all feel bad about that. We should not have printed the information as background information, and it should have been checked. We fell down on the desk."
Kurtz asked reporter Spencer Hsu if the paper should reveal the identity of anonymous sources who provided bad information. "We don't blow sources, period," Hsu replied. To which Mike Peterson reacted on Poynter.org, "Is this a new way to describe what we used to call 'burning a source' or a new way to get around the ethical proscriptions against paying them?"

Correction Extras

•Brad Smith, a former Tampa Tribune reporter found to have made up portions of an article earlier this year, was, inevitably, the subject of an exhaustive follow-up investigation by the paper. Among the problems it found, albeit limited to just a few of his articles: using social acquaintances as sources, not attributing quotes to other publications; and using sources paid for by companies as spokespeople, but not indicating as much.

The unfortunate truth is that a review of many newspaper reporters' works would find some of these. Smith, in a fierce rebuttal to the article on poynter.org, nonetheless doesn't dispute many of these alleged transgressions, but he writes, "The piece goes on, at length, about a hair-removal salon feature, supposedly all but dictated by its local p.r. flack. The St. Pete Times recently published virtually the same story. So what? Both local papers are, in fact, rife with what McBride terms 'advertising disguised as news.' "

The Tribune article was about the Ideal Image hair-removal salon, which has gotten good press from a bunch of publications. That hard-hitting St. Pete Times article began, "Dean Akers has a theory for why the company he runs is popular."

•Fox News's Geraldo Rivera is no paragon of fine journalism, but he has a point in demanding a correction from the New York Times for writing that he "nudged an Air Force rescue worker out of the way so his camera crew could tape him as he helped lift an older woman in a wheelchair to safety." As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, a video couldn't verify that.


Too Good to Be True?

New York Times, August 27: An obituary on June 11 about Hamilton Naki, a black employee of the University of Cape Town, described him as having worked behind the scenes in 1967 to assist Dr. Christiaan N. Barnard in the first human heart transplant. In recent weeks, British news reports have challenged this description. Further reporting in South Africa by The New York Times has discounted many details of the original account, which was based largely on earlier published reports. The Times should have attributed the account in the obituary more specifically, and should have made further efforts to verify it independently before publication. The Times should also have corrected its account more quickly after the initial questions were raised. An article describing the revelations about Mr. Naki appears today.

Former colleagues told the Times that Mr. Naki wasn't even in the hospital when the historic surgery took place. "His considerable surgical skills were limited to experimental work on pigs and dogs, and even his greatest admirers say he would not have been allowed to work on humans," says the Times. Nonetheless, "Mr. Naki's true story is remarkable in its own right." The Times didn't correct its account until more than six weeks after the Economist corrected its own Naki obit. Other papers ran their own Naki corrections, including Newsday and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Compound Error

Los Angeles Times, August 26: "An article in Thursday's California section reported on statements made by John Loftus, a commentator for Fox News, describing grocery store owner Iyad K. Hilal as a terrorist. Although the article accurately quoted Loftus' expression of his opinion, The Times wants to make clear that Hilal has not been charged with any illegal activity and The Times is not aware of any law enforcement agency or official that has identified Hilal as a terrorist. In addition, a previous story on Hilal, which ran in some editions of the California section on Wednesday, said that Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Muslim cleric formerly based in London, had identified Hilal last year in an interview in a newsletter as "leader of the U.S. branch" of an organization known as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Mohammed's interview actually identified a man named Iyad Hilal as the leader of a splinter group of Hizb ut-Tahrir that includes only "a few individuals." The Times regrets any confusion that may have resulted from these articles."
The Times was reporting on the story in the first place because Loftus provided viewers with an address for Hilal that was out of date. "After the report ran on Fox News on Aug. 7, people have shouted profanities at Randy and Ronnell Vorick and spray-painted 'terrorist' (spelling it 'terrist') on their property," the Associated Press reported. But in its haste to report that story, the L.A. Times neglected to point out that the case against the man Loftus was originally targeting isn't a slam dunk.

Doctors' Conflicts of Interest

Wall Street Journal, September 22: The Aug. 15 Heard on the Street column quoted two doctors who expressed reservations about the SilverHawk catheter medical device produced by FoxHollow Technologies Inc. During interviews with the reporter of the article, the doctors failed to disclose any financial interests or other potential conflicts when specifically asked.
One of the doctors, Takao Ohki, chief of vascular surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, was critical of the device in the article. Dr. Ohki now confirms that he has held a short position of 4,000 FoxHollow shares, betting they will decline in value, since December. Dr. Ohki also received $2,500 to attend a two-day conference in August hosted by Johnson & Johnson, a FoxHollow competitor. Dr. Ohki says his view of the product isn't affected by his position in FoxHollow or his relationship with Johnson & Johnson.
The other doctor, Michael Jaff, runs a research lab on peripheral disease at Massachusetts General Hospital and is an employee of the not-for-profit hospital. In the article, Dr. Jaff said he was reluctant to recommend the product until trial data are collected. Dr. Jaff now confirms that units of Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific Corp., another FoxHollow rival, pay Massachusetts General for the cost of clinical research on products of the companies that takes place in Dr. Jaff's lab. Dr. Jaff says he doesn't benefit from the performance of the trials and doesn't view the relationship as a conflict. (See related letter, page A17.)

Seattle Times, September 12: This article has been revised from the original version to reflect information that appeared in a published clarification in the newspaper on Sept. 11, 2005. Here is that clarification:
An Aug. 7 article reported that Dr. Ron Garren, who runs a hedge fund in Carmel, Calif., admits he pays doctors in an effort to get confidential details about ongoing drug research. Garren's statements were apparently misunderstood. He discussed the practice of hedge funds—including one for which he formerly worked—paying doctors, including some involved in ongoing clinical trials, as consultants. But Garren says the firm he owns and operates now, Biotech Insight Management LLC, does not do so.
The Aug. 7 article reported that The Times found at least 26 cases in which drug researchers involved in clinical trials leaked confidential details of ongoing research to Wall Street firms. The total is accurate because Garren was not among the 26.

I'm an Idiot

Wall Street Journal, August 26: More than half of doctoral degrees in engineering awarded in the U.S. go to non-U.S. citizens, according to the National Science Foundation. U.S. citizens earn the majority of bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering. A Numbers Guy column Friday incorrectly said that the bulk of all engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. go to foreign nationals.

Wall Street Journal, August 18: The Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. air carriers, said that a congressional proposal to extend daylight savings by two months would cost its members $147 million. That figure came from airlines, which used computer models to predict how many fewer tickets would be sold on international flights affected by the time change, because passengers might miss connecting flights or for other factors. A Numbers Guy column incorrectly said the $147 million figure represented total ticket revenue for all flights during the affected times.

I'm Numbers Guy, and I'm sometimes unworthy of the name.

Thanks for the Help

Guardian, September 2: An article headed You keep me hanging on: What's the true measure of stardom, about the phenomenon of the entourage, by John Perry, page 8, the Guide, March 26, failed to make an attribution to an article in Slate Magazine by Josh Levin, as the source of several passages. Apologies.
The whole Guardian article is reminiscent of Slate's piece from last November. Guardian readers' editor Ian Mayes wrote this meandering, defensive commentary about the incident: "The Guardian piece was wider in scope than the article from which the passages were taken. The responsibility for the appropriated passages appears to lie not entirely with the author of the Guardian article. One reference may have been written in by the commissioning editor in search of a legally safe expression to satisfy the Guardian's lawyers. This may be neither here nor there to the complainant. Whether or not plagiarism is the appropriate word, the complaint was essentially upheld."

Our Detail-Oriented Lawmakers

Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 24: In a Q&A interview on Page A4 on Aug. 16, Sen. Mark Dayton spoke incorrectly on three points: He visited a Nike contract factory, not a Nike plant; the factory employs 4,000 workers, not 500, and the employees at the factory make approximately $100 every month, not 60 to 70 cents a day. Dayton made the errors in a conference call with reporters, according to his spokeswoman.

Error Propagation

Slate, August 26: In the Aug. 23 "Press Box," Jack Shafer cited Crack in America in writing that Newsweek "published five cover stories about crack or the drug crisis in 1986." That count was an error, says the book's co-editor, Harry G. Levine, via e-mail. The erroneous sentence has been deleted.

Sorry for the Misunderstanding

Newsday, September 3: Lisa Sorensen, Venus Williams' publicist, said Friday that Williams was aware of Hurricane Katrina when she made comments at the U.S. Open on Thursday that were interpreted to mean she was not aware.
This correction makes it quite difficult to know just where in the paper the comments were misinterpreted. Gelf is guessing it's this column by Johnette Howard, who wrote, "Far worse than her sister Venus' trance-like admission earlier in the day that she hadn't heard about Hurricane Katrina at all. 'I really don't watch the news,' Venus said. 'Sometimes it's just better not to know.' "
Here's the full question and answer, in which Venus's candor and indirect way of speaking got her in trouble. But she never said she was unaware of the hurricane:

Q. Have you watched any of the coverage of what's going on in New Orleans?

VENUS WILLIAMS: No. I don't really watch the news. I mean, I was barely able to get out of the storm because of that. I didn't know it was coming till someone started talking about it from my office. In some ways I'm very unaware of the latest happenings in the world. I kind of leave it like that because sometimes it's better not to know.

Also, the John Smith We Quoted Didn't Settle Jamestown

New York Times, September 16: An article in Business Day yesterday about a decision by the Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust to bar nine doctors from providing medical reports as a basis for payments to asbestos claimants misidentified one of the nine. The Dr. Kevin Cooper on the list is a general practitioner from Pascagoula, Miss. (The Kevin Cooper who is a professor of medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University was unaware of the list; his expression of puzzlement, quoted in the article, was a reaction to a call from a reporter.)

Also, the John Slade We Mentioned Didn't Fight in the Hundred Years' War

Wall Street Journal, September 14: John Slade worked at Bear Stearns Cos. for nearly seven decades. In some editions yesterday, an article about the trader's death incorrectly said centuries instead of decades.

And She Spent Thousands of Dollars, Not the Hundreds of Dollars that Liberal Media Claimed

Salon, September 12: The Sept. 11 column "The Bitter Lessons of Four Years" noted that Condoleezza Rice had shopped for shoes on Madison Avenue during the Katrina disaster; in fact, she shopped for shoes on Fifth Avenue. The sentence has been corrected.

Another Correction the Administration Must Love

Orange County Register, September 13: We strive to make our headlines accurate, fair and error-free. A headline in the News section of the Sept. 8 edition of the Register fell short. The headline on a story involving the president's mother, Barbara Bush, said "Barbara: Refugees used to crummy conditions." Mrs. Bush did not use those words and did not characterize the relocation center at the Houston Astrodome in that manner.
Here's what the former First Lady said: "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." So, no, she didn't characterize the Astrodome that way; she characterized refugees' former homes that way. How thoughtful of her.

Read Your Own Damn Paper (and Perhaps Also Hire a New Critic)

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 17: A chart in the Weekend Cue section Friday comparing reviewers' ratings for "The Man" misstated information about the Journal Sentinel's review of the movie. The review called the comedy a worthy effort, not a bomb.
That was very much a minority opinion; Metacritic's average score for the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle was a paltry 33.

Guardian, September 12: In a pictorial table of buildings in which the Guardian's architecture correspondent distinguished between those he would like to see preserved and those he would not mind being destroyed, page 3, September 7, we gave the wrong impression about his feelings for Richard Rogers' Lloyd's building in London. The caption described it as a building "not to save". In fact our architecture correspondent has made it clear on numerous occasions that he greatly admires it. It was also described in the caption as an example of postmodern architecture (which he does not generally like). It is an example of late modernism.
Is the critic off-base this time? Hard to say. Gelf hasn't seen the building, and Metacritic doesn't rate it.

Read Your Own Damn Paper's Internal Memos

Tennessean, September 3: A front-page article yesterday incorrectly reported a position held by The Tennessean's new publisher, Ellen M. Leifeld, at the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. She served as managing editor there. The article also misspelled the name of Andrew Oppmann, the executive editor and general manager of The Post-Crescent.

Alternative Agricultural Occupations

Los Angeles Times, September 13: In an article in Sunday's California section about bighorn sheep, Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity was incorrectly quoted as saying the "wildlife industry" wielded influence in the government's handling of grazing conflicts between the bighorns and domestic sheep. Galvin said the "livestock industry" influenced the government's handling of the issue.

Guardian, September 17: In our obituary of the pioneering photographer and pilot Anne Noggle, we attributed to her the most unlikely job of dust-cropping. Crop-dusting was what we meant (page 36, September 14).

Genuine Distress

Guardian, September 8: Brian Booth, the former vice chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, who was listed in the Birthdays on page 24, September 6, died on October 24 2004. Apologies for any distress caused.

Guardian, September 13: The caption to a picture showing the US ambassador to London laying a wreath to the memory of Britons who died in the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001, page 12, September 10, contained a distressing error for which we apologise. We said that among those shown was Alexandra Clarke, whose son Tom was killed in the attacks. It was her daughter Suria who was killed. Her son Tom accompanied her to the memorial and, in fact, appears in the picture, directly behind the ambassador.

Jesus's Oedipal Complex

Guardian, September 16: The evidence suggesting a connection between David Beckham and divinity was too eagerly presented when we said that he and his wife Victoria had been portrayed as Jesus and Mary in a controversial nativity display at Madame Tussauds in December 2004 (David Beckham, from football saviour to the new Messiah, page 8, September 14). In fact, models of the Beckhams were placed in the roles of Joseph and Mary.

Too Many Qualifications

Los Angeles Times, September 11: The subheadline on a Sept. 1 article in Section A about a Turkish author accused of denigrating his country referred to Turkey's "alleged slaying of Armenians." It should not have been qualified with the word "alleged" in reference to the slayings of Armenians during and after World War I.
Many Turks and a small minority of scholars dispute that there was a genocide of Armenians, but no one credible disputes that Armenians were slain. As newspapers often do, the Times went too far to be sure it wouldn't offend any readers.

Correction Clarity on Strike

Christian Science Monitor, September 1: The original headline was less accurate than it should have been in referring to the strikers.
The current headline on the story: "Why Big Labor hasn't aided striking mechanics." The original headline is unknown, as is the degree to which headlines should be accurate—90%? 80%?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 1: The second headline in the original version of this story was misleading and has been changed.
The current second headline: "It would be union's first walkout in a decade." Thanks to Nexis, we know that it originally said, "Company could face its first walkout in a decade." Oh, and why say "misleading" when "wrong" or "incorrect" would suffice?

Regional Delicacies

Guardian August 31: In our note on the Channel 4 programme The Sperminator, page 20, G2, yesterday, we referred to the "sperm doner". Someone who donates is a donor. A doner is a type of kebab.

—David Goldenberg, Keith Huang and Garey G. Ris contributed to this column.

Spot an interesting correction on television, in a magazine or newspaper, or on a web news site or blog? Or see something that should have been corrected but wasn't? E-mail Gelf with your find.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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