July 21, 2005

Fuzzy Math and MollyMath

Counting Iraqi dead, labelling Bill O'Reilly, speedy wife-carrying, and other enlightening and entertaining media corrections.

Carl Bialik

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.

Counting Iraq's Civilian Dead

Chicago Tribune, July 13: A June 30 Commentary column by Molly Ivins incorrectly stated that more Iraqi civilians have been killed in the Iraqi war than had been killed by Saddam Hussein during his regime. According to Human Rights Watch, Hussein killed several hundred thousand civilians. It is estimated that between 22,000 to 25,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed during the Iraq war.
Ivins's column contained this rather careless, unattributed line: "I think we have alienated our allies and have killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein ever did." A storm of protest followed—with an inconsistent set of numbers. One Trib letter writer said, "An estimated number of Iraqi civilians dead since the war is estimated around 13,000 and most of those are from the terrorists that are mostly foreign fighters or former baathists party leaders." The Confederate Yankee blogger wrote to Michelle Malkin, "Even using iraqbodycount.net's high-end estimate of 25,000 dead (total, by both sides) the numbers aren't even close, unless you use MollyMath, where a couple of ten thousand and some change is worth more than a million." Blogger Arthur Chrenkoff wrote, "Who needs straw liberals when you have real Molly Ivins."
There's little doubt Ivins was off. But how do you correct this sort of numerical error when you're not sure what the real numbers are? Ivins handled the issue delicately in a follow-up column, mentioning that estimates went as high as 100,000 (though as Crooked Timber pointed out, the Lancet study commonly associated with the 100,000 figure really said there was a 5% chance the number was higher than 200,000, and that estimate through September 2004 doesn't include all the subsequent deaths.) Ivins earned kudos from a letter writer and from Trib public editor Don Wycliff.
How many did Hussein kill? Ivins wrote, "There have been estimates as high as 1 million civilians killed by Hussein, though most agree on the 300,000 to 400,000 range." Human Rights Watch, one of her primary sources, puts the number at between 250,000 and 290,000 over the past two decades. That number looked low, if you were to believe Tony Blair, who said in November 2003, "The remains of 400,000 human beings [have] already [been] found in mass graves." Yet the UK's Observer newspaper reported over a year ago, "Downing Street has admitted to The Observer that repeated claims by Tony Blair that '400,000 bodies had been found in Iraqi mass graves' is untrue, and only about 5,000 corpses have so far been uncovered." Yet USAID quotes Blair's claim in a pamphlet about the mass graves. And the Confederate Yankee, in turn, cites the 400,000 number, attributing it—inevitably—to USAID.
The correction's wording glosses over all the uncertainty and controversy, and instead cites a narrow range of estimates, with no attribution. (The likely source is Iraq Body Count, which collects reports of civilian deaths from all sources.) In this case, a longer correction would have provided more clarity.

When the Press Covers the Press

New York Times, July 12: A headline in Business Day on Monday about a decision by the editor of The Cleveland Plain Dealer to withhold articles based on leaked government documents exceeded the findings of the article. While most editors interviewed, including six who were not mentioned, said they would publish such information, the size of the sampling did not warrant a reference to "most editors."
The original article, about the potential of Judith Miller's jailing to put a chill on whistleblowing news reporting, was headlined "Most Editors Say They'd Publish Articles Based on Leaks." Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton wrote a memo to his staff, quoted on Romenesko, saying, "The story itself quotes three editors who speak directly to the point and one whose opinion isn't clear. No matter. Let's say four editors hold the sentiments of the headline. How does that become 'most?' " He wasn't too happy with the story, though it isn't exactly clear to Gelf why; he wrote, "It pains me, after 35 years in the business to see the inadequacy of daily journalism to deal with subtle shadings of fact."

Correction Extra

Last week Oops noted a weird New York Times op-ed correction in which the paper acknowledged that an editor inserted words into a guest column that weren't quite right, and the paper mistakenly published the erroneous version. Because the column was about Iraq, and because the correction revealed just the bare minimum, it led to charges of bias. The paper's public editor, Byron Calame, explains what happened, and writes, "because they did not take a little more space to explain how the 'surprise' phrases had surfaced as part of the give-and-take of the editing and updating process, readers were left to suspect the worst. And that fed perceptions of a serious ethical lapse at The Times."

Los Angeles Times, July 12: In the Critic's Notebook by Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn that ran in Section A on July 3, the term "ultraconservative" was added by a copy editor to describe Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. Hilburn, before interviewing O'Reilly about the social activism of U2's Bono, had told the commentator he would not label him in a subjective way. The adjective that was inserted did not reflect that agreement or the critic's views. Here's what the Hilburn column said, after the overzealous copy editor worked on it: "Bono has been so persuasive in his advocacy of debt relief for Africa that he has won the respect even of controversial, ultraconservative Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly questioned Bono for 45 minutes about African and economic issues before agreeing to have him as a guest on his show last year. 'I think Bono should win the Nobel Peace Prize,' he said in an interview last week. 'He's not a phony. If I can help him in any way, I will help him.' " Several notable things about this correction: • It doesn't necessarily say the characterization is incorrect; in that sense, it's more of a public apology and disavowal of critic's responsibility for the label, perhaps better suited for the next Hilburn column than the corrections page. • It calls into question why a critic is making such promises to subjects. Shouldn't critics be free to make such judgments? • That's quite a change by the copy-editing desk.

The L.A. Times Copy Editor Does a Stint in Arizona

Arizona Daily Star, July 12: The Star introduced two grammatical errors in editing a letter about the 10 Commandments by Christi Driggs of Tucson, published Saturday on B7.

Reluctant No More

New York Times, July 13: An editors' note last Thursday about the recent fact-checking of a 2003 Times article from Baghdad, which confirmed some specifics but found a name misspelled, gave an outdated title for a new book by the article's writer, Alan Feuer. The book, in which the writer cast doubt on some of the details he reported in 2003, is "Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad, A Memoir" (Counterpoint Press). The proof copies that circulated to reviewers bore the title "Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad, Two Months in the Life of a Reluctant Reporter."
Gelf wrote about the earlier editor's note, and interesting back story, last week.

Correcting the Correction

Los Angeles Times, July 13: A correction Saturday for a June 26 Los Angeles Times Magazine article about the increasing number of elderly prisoners in California said that on a third-strike felony sentence of at least 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving at least 80% of the sentence. In fact, on a third-strike sentence of 25 years to life, the offender is eligible for parole after serving the minimum sentence of 25 years.
The twice-corrected story—noted previously by Gelf—now has the distinction of a corrected correction.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

New York Times, July 13: An article on Friday about the disappearance of a Greenwich, Conn., man from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean referred incompletely to the first news reports of it. While Greenwich Time covered the disappearance on Thursday, a local cable station, News 12, reported it on Wednesday night.

Read Your Own Damn Paper

New York Times, July 12: A front-page article on Saturday about the effort by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna, to redefine the Roman Catholic Church's position on evolution referred imprecisely to his Op-Ed article in The Times on Thursday. The article, which said the church's position had often been misrepresented, was prompted by an essay by Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss published in Science Times in May; it was not a direct response to that essay.
Gelflog wrote about the corrected article.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 17: An article in last Sunday's main news section about eight awards won by The San Francisco Chronicle in recent national and state writing competitions misstated the composition of the newspaper's third-place win in the category of general excellence among papers with circulations of 300,000 or more. In the Missouri School of Journalism's 45th Missouri Lifestyle Awards, The Chronicle entry was composed of daily and weekly feature sections: the daily and Sunday Datebook; Food; Wine; Home & Garden; Style; Book Review; Chronicle Magazine; Insight; and Travel.

Correcting Others' Errors

Romenesko, July 18: The lead in today's Los Angeles Business Journal story, "Times to Offer Readers a View of Stories by Competing Papers," reports that, "the Los Angeles Times is developing a new Web site that would include content from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other rival news sources." This statement is incorrect. We are not developing a new Web site that includes rival content. The Los Angeles Times would offer a link on latimes.com to download Los Angeles Times-branded RSS software that will allow readers to receive Los Angeles Times and other public RSS feeds. Many other newspaper sites, including The New York Times, offer RSS feeds and encourage users to download RSS players to read them.
LABJ editor Mark Lacter responded on Romenesko by quoting from the LAT's new service, apparently contradicting its own correction, and adding, "So let me get this straight—the Times is not using content from other news sources but it offers us a chance to 'get perspective from other news sources.' Huh? Seems like the PR department might not be in sync with the new media department."


New York Times, July 16: An article in Escapes on May 27 about new restaurants and other changes in the Hamptons and a listing in the Dining Guide published with the Long Island section on June 26 reported that the Tuscan House restaurant of Riverhead, N.Y., was moving to Southampton. In fact the restaurant remains open in Riverhead, at 673 Osborne Avenue, (631) 727-2330. The May 27 article also quoted Billy Oster, who said he was the owner of the Tuscan House. But Mr. Oster is the former executive chef, not an owner. The owner of the Riverhead restaurant is Mark Calisi, whose representative notified The Times of those facts this week and provided ownership documents. On Monday Mr. Oster plans to open his own restaurant, which he says will also be called the Tuscan House, in Southampton.

Fair Response

National Post, July 14: On June 14, Alex Orbito and John Robert Wood were charged with fraud in connection with Mr. Orbito's faith-healing business. On June 16, the National Post published a news story reporting on these charges. The two accused have not as yet had the opportunity to enter their pleas in relation to the charges. The story reported on a police allegation that Mr. Wood had promoted Mr. Orbito's business by saying that Mr. Orbito had successfully treated Mr. Wood's wife's breast cancer and that Mr. Wood's wife had not suffered breast cancer. This allegation has not yet been made in court. It is Mr. Wood's position that his wife has indeed suffered breast cancer. The National Post intends to report on this proceeding.
Regret the Error wrote, "Gotta love that last line. It's basically saying, 'we'll give you the real story later.' "

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 15: A story about Sunoco Welcome America published yesterday stated that Lana Felton-Ghee, Welcome America's executive producer, did not return a reporter's phone call seeking comment. The story should have reported that comments attributed to Welcome America spokeswoman Barbara Grant were made on Felton-Ghee's behalf.
The article, reporting on a state fine of $15,000 assessed against Welcome America for soliciting contributions without a valid registration, quoted Grant saying, "This was something that existed for quite some time, and nobody really realized it. We thought we were in compliance until last year." It later reported: "Felton-Ghee, a professional event planner who managed Mayor Street's successful 1999 mayoral campaign, became the nonprofit's executive after Street's election. She did not return a call yesterday."


New York Times, July 17: The Style & Entertaining article on July 3, about Patrick Mikanowski, a French art director who has written books about tomatoes and potatoes, included an incorrect translation of the price he paid for tomatoes at a greenmarket in Paris. Seven euros per kilo comes out to just over $8 for 2.2 pounds, not $9 a pound.

Los Angeles Times, July 13: A map in Saturday's Sports section showed Stage 8 of the Tour de France ending at an elevation of 984.2 feet. Stage 8 finished at an elevation of 2,457 feet.

Los Angeles Times, July 16: An article in Tuesday's Outdoors section about former secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall said the Wilderness Act protects more than 400 million acres. The act protects more than 100 million acres.

Let's Hope This Mollifies Mustangs Fans

Dallas Morning News, July 12: A July 7 article about Dr. Phil McGraw's visit to Southern Methodist University incorrectly quoted a question posed to him. Instead of "Dr. Phil, is SMU gonna beat TCU this year?" the quote should have read, "Dr. Phil, is TCU gonna beat SMU this year?" To that, he answered with a laugh and his trademark: "Get real."

London Calling

New York Times, July 12: A front-page article on Saturday about the bombings in London on Thursday misstated the number of commuter trains bombed in Madrid on March 11, 2004. It was 4, not 10.

Oregonian, July 12: Tube trains in London run both underground and above ground. A graphic on the July 8 NewsFocus page incorrectly stated the trains run only underground.


New York Times, July 15: Because of an editing error, a chart on Friday describing events that led to a criminal investigation of the leak of Valerie Wilson's work under cover for the C.I.A. misstated her whereabouts at the time her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, traveled to Niger in Feb. 2002. She was at the agency's headquarters in Virginia, not in Niger.

Salon, July 15: The July 13 story "Judy Miller and the Press, Part 2" originally stated, "Valerie Plame wasn't a classified undercover agent but a desk employee at CIA headquarters." The story has been corrected to reflect that there remains debate about whether Plame was a classified undercover agent at the time she was employed at CIA headquarters.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, July 14: A Cox News Service story published Tuesday said that Joseph Wilson traveled to Niger to look into an assertion President Bush made in his 2003 State of the Union address that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy materials there for weapons of mass destruction. Wilson made the trip in 2002, before the president's speech.

Wall Street Journal, July 13: Robert Luskin, an attorney for deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove, said Mr. Rove isn't a target of a grand jury investigation. A target of a grand jury investigation may face indictment. An article yesterday incorrectly stated that Mr. Luskin said Mr. Rove isn't a subject of a grand jury.

Miami Herald, July 16: A Leonard Pitts column on Page 1B Friday incorrectly referred to e-mails ''between Karl Rove and a Time magazine reporter'' about CIA operative Valerie Plame. The e-mail passed between the Time reporter and an editor and recounted a conversation the reporter had with Rove about Plame.

Los Angeles Times, July 16: A photo caption in some editions of Friday's Section A, citing a lawyer for White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, said Rove talked to a reporter about CIA agent Valerie Plame to discourage the reporter from writing about her status. In fact, the lawyer said Rove talked to the reporter about Plame to discourage the reporter from writing a story about Plame's husband.

San Antonio Express-News, July 17: Because of a reporting error, Robert Rivard's column on Sunday incorrectly identified the African country that was investigated for possibly selling enriched uranium to Saddam Hussein. No evidence was found that Niger provided uranium to Iraq.
The original version of the story confused Niger with Nigeria.

Jumping the Gun

Wall Street Journal, July 13: Bernard Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the WorldCom fraud. The initial version of an article on the sentencing, and a related email alert and desktop alert, said he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The judge cited federal sentencing guidelines of 30 years to life, but reduced the sentence based on Mr. Ebbers's health and charitable works.

A Matter of Timing

Orange County Register, July 15: Assemblyman Tom Umberg filed for Retired Reserve status with the Army Reserve in mid-May, not after he publicly acknowledged an extramarital affair in June. Potentially misleading information appeared in an article in the Local section of the July 9 edition of the Register. See Local 1 for a fuller explanation.

Freudian Slip?

Wired, July 15: An earlier version of the story misquoted Senator Nelson referring to the bill as a partisan effort. The bill has bipartisan support.

Anonymice With Agendas

Newsday, July 13: A former NYPD official who worked closely with overseas police agencies told Newsday that information passed on through entities such as Interpol may not be as detailed as information obtained by the NYPD firsthand. A story Saturday mischaracterized that assessment and did not attribute it to that official.
The original article painted a stark and apparently misleading picture: "Imagine police learning about a murder, then not responding to the crime scene for hours. That's the obstacle the NYPD would face if it did not have detectives assigned to key outposts overseas, police sources said. The department would have learned details in the case of the London subway and bus bombings, but the information would have been sanitized and vetted—by the FBI, Interpol and various embassy officials—before it wound up in the hands of police brass."

Mind Readers

National Post, July 15: The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) conducted a raid on Wednesday in Tulkarm, in the West Bank, against Islamic Jihad, in order to disrupt and thwart future terrorist attacks, after a suicide bombing by an Islamic Jihad member in Netanya, Israel, on Tuesday. The IDF did not call this raid a retaliation for the suicide bombing, notwithstanding the wording of a Reuters story that was included in a story in Wednesday's National Post.
HonestReporting explains how the error resulted from an incorrect paraphrase of an IDF statement, and how it propagated into several Canadian newspapers.

When a Warrant Isn't Quite a Warrant

Washington Post, July 14: A July 12 article said the FBI does not need a warrant to obtain a wide range of records from financial companies and other institutions, including libraries, under the USA Patriot Act. Such seizures do require warrants, which are issued in secret by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and are not subject to the same restrictions as a criminal warrant.

We Have Nothing To Fear...

Chicago Tribune, July 13: A Page 3 Metro section news item Monday about a bomb threat made on a Chicago Transportation Authority Brown Line station Sunday did not provide a context for a statement made by CTA spokeswoman Anne McCarthy. She did not say the CTA would get several bomb threats. In fact, she said the CTA may have many incidents reported and will take all reports seriously.
The ambiguous-bordering-on-scary quote: "In the wake of the London mass-transit bombings, 'I'm afraid we're going to get a bunch of these, but we have to react with caution,' McCarthy said."

Dora, With Flava
Washington Post, July 14: A July 14 Business article about the marketing of food to children misstated the name of a cartoon character. It is Dora the Explorer, not Dora the Explora.
Dora does have a vaguely Spanish accent—or so Gelf has heard.

She's Not Heavy

Los Angeles Times, July 13: An item in Tuesday's Sports section said Margo Uusorg had run an 800-yard obstacle course carrying his wife on his back in 59 seconds. The course was in fact only about 277 yards long.
The world record for running sans wife for 800 meters (about 9.3% longer than 800 yards) is 101.11 seconds, according to the International Association of Athletic Federations.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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