Editor’s Note: Readers often wonder about the reporting and editing process and other news practices. We think it’s important to explain our decisions and how we work and we do so from time to time in our occasional series called “Behind The Story.”
Like workers everywhere, journalists make honest mistakes. They misunderstand what sources tell them, make assumptions they fail to recognize as such or suffer a mental hiccup, causing them to miss something that later seems obvious.
The difference is that for reporters, errors often play out in public.
So it came to pass that, earlier this month, Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler forwarded an email to Brittany Lyte, a reporter based on Kauai, with a story by Environment Hawaii about a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the status of the Hawaiian hoary bat. The review found that downlisting Hawaii’s official land mammal from endangered to threatened would be warranted.
It’s a routine occurrence in any newsroom — an editor forwards something to a reporter, suggesting it might be worth looking into. Lyte read the email and embarked on our own story, which I edited and Civil Beat published on Monday.
On Wednesday, Patricia Tummons got in touch with Epler. Tummons is the president of Environment Hawaii, a Hilo nonprofit that publishes a monthly newsletter on environmental issues. She wrote that she had concerns about Civil Beat’s article.
For one, we had linked to the Fish and Wildlife report on Environment Hawaii’s website, instead of from the government site where it was originally posted.
Secondly, some passages in Lyte’s story were similar to what Environment Hawaii’s reporter, Teresa Dawson, had written in her November article about the hoary bat. The passages “seem to be almost directly lifted,” Tummons wrote.
Lastly, Civil Beat’s article had asserted that federal regulators that week had proposed stripping the hoary bat of its endangered status. In fact, Fish and Wildlife, in its status review released in March, had only concluded that downlisting was warranted, and had not yet made a formal announcement in the Federal Register, Tummons wrote.
I called Lyte and it didn’t take long to figure out what had gone wrong. Epler, in her email to Lyte, had cut and pasted the recently published Environment Hawaii story, but hadn’t mentioned where it came from. And Lyte had assumed that it was a Fish and Wildlife press release, instead of a story written by another media outlet.
With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that the information didn’t come from a press release. Epler’s email did not contain the formatting, logo or contact information that normally would be part of a government press release. The story was longer than most press releases and written in a journalistic style not often found in government missives.
Every journalist has made mistakes, some more embarrassing than others.
But Lyte, working on the story on a Friday afternoon, simply had one of those mental hiccups. Her mistaken assumption explains all the problems with the story that Tummons pointed out. Lyte linked to the report on Environment Hawaii’s website, thinking it was the original government link. Just as journalists routinely paraphrase or slightly reword passages from press releases, Lyte in several paragraphs had echoed Environment Hawaii’s language.
And her assumption explained why our story stated that Fish and Wildlife had decided that downlisting the hoary bat was warranted in early November, when Environment Hawaii published its story, instead of March, when the status review was actually released.
Civil Beat changed the story to include attributions to Environment Hawaii’s reporting, link to the status review on the Fish and Wildlife site and correct the error about the nature of Fish and Wildlife’s action — that its status review said that downlisting the hoary bat would be warranted, not that it had officially proposed it.
Every journalist has made mistakes, some more embarrassing than others. As a reporter at The Sacramento Bee, for instance, I conducted an email interview with someone named Pat. In my story, I referred to Pat repeatedly as a he. In fact, Pat was a she. Or maybe it was the other way around. It wasn’t a huge mistake, but the correction was mortifying.
Journalists are required to become instant experts on an array of subjects — sometimes a new one every day. People who know a lot about the things we cover sometimes read our stories and think we’re all simpletons — how could we get something so obvious so wrong? What they miss is that they are so immersed in the subject, they assume everyone sees it as clearly as they do, like someone who masters a musical instrument not quite getting why others can’t just do it. Getting things right — hearing every nuance, understanding technical jargon, explaining things simply but not so simply as to be wrong — is hard work.
And sometimes, like Lyte, we just make unfortunate assumptions.
The question is what to do about it. I’ve worked at news outlets where editors did everything in their power to avoid writing a correction. “We’ll correct it the next time we write about it,” they’d say, or, “They’re splitting hairs. It’s close enough.” (Although truth be told, sometimes they are splitting hairs.)
I know of another media outlet that was so tough on reporters who made errors that it seemed to have the paradoxical effect of causing more errors, as if you yelled “Don’t fall” to someone on a tightrope. As I recall it, the paper wrote a story about a civil lawsuit against a minister who had an affair with a woman who, with her husband, had come to him for couples counseling. The paper reported that the minister testified that he added a notch to his Bible every time he had sex with the woman. In fact, the minister had responded to a question about how often he had sex with the woman by saying he didn’t know, it’s not like he notched his Bible each time. Oops.
Certainly, it’s crucial for media outlets to do everything in their power to get things right, especially in light of the well-documented collapse of trust of journalists. And a pattern of errors by a reporter, or a media outlet, is cause for concern.
But it’s no coincidence that the most highly esteemed media outlet in the country, The New York Times, also seems to be the most willing to correct and clarify information. The allegiance should be to the truth, not circling the wagons or avoiding embarrassment when facts are called into question.
At Civil Beat, we fix small flubs like messed up grammar, a misspelled word or a minor mistake without writing a formal correction. For bigger factual errors, we note the correction at the place where the error occurred. We repeat the incorrect information and then say what it was changed to. For instance: “Correction: An earlier version of this story said blah blah blah. In fact, blah blah blah.”
If the error was substantial, as in Lyte’s story, we put it at the top.
These are the kinds of decisions we make every day. We don’t always get the facts right, and we probably flub our responses to errors at times. But, as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant — which is why we felt it was important to tell the story of this particular error.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Quality journalism takes time.
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.