News literacy: Getting a correction in the age of social media

Sunday, January 29, 2017

News Literacy concept: Accountability

Taking direct responsibility, by name, for the truthfulness and the reliability of the report. Examples include bylines in print and digital journalism and signoffs in audio and video reports.

Lesson Outline

As the cry of “fake news” has become more common, legitimate news organizations need to up their game. Every mistake — however accidental or innocent — casts a shadow of the credibility of the whole profession. Mistakes will happen. It’s inevitable. But one of the things that separates “real news” organization from bogus sites is that journalists fix their mistakes, and acknowledge the corrections publicly. That’s a cornerstone of accountability.


Over breakfast the morning of  Jan. 4, 2017, I was reading the Chicago Sun-Times, which features national content from USA Today. And I came across an article titled “Survey: Congress more Christian than America.” Interested, I read on.
In the third paragraph, I spotted a mistake: “The number of Christians in Congress is higher than the number of Americans who identify as Christian.”
It’s a mistake because, as the paragraph that preceded the mistake makes clear, the research from the Pew Research Center compares percentages. As many reporters learn early in their careers, the word “number” is different from “percentage.” You determine a number simply by counting. A percentage is a ratio — a proportion in relation to a whole.
In this case, “number” is clearly wrong, because the number of people in Congress — of any faith — is dwarfed by the total number of Americans of any faith.
In pre-internet days, reporting this mistake might have involved writing a letter, putting it in an envelope, licking a stamp, mailing it and then waiting a week or more before — maybe — a correction might find its way into a future edition of USA Today or the Sun-Times. Or it might have taken a phone call, and probably multiple transfers of the call, to someone who would take a note and offer to get it to the reporter in question.
But modern news consumers have easier and quicker ways to flag mistakes. Email’s one, of course. But this article — in print and online — didn’t carry an email address for the reporter, Eliza Collins. On the other hand, she was easy to find on Twitter. So I tweeted the article link to her and USA Today, with this note:
Dear @USAToday, @elizacollins1: "Number" isn't "percentage." Correction, please?
My tweet went out at 10:12 a.m. Within two minutes, she tweeted back:
@Meyerson that link isn’t working for me do you mind resending? I’ll take a look
At 10:21, I answered, resending the link and the suspect passage:
@elizacollins1 Thanks for the quick response: … "The number of Christians in Congress is higher than …"
Shortly after that, the article was corrected online, where you can see it now reads:
The percentage of Christians in Congress is higher than the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian.
Mission accomplished. Except …

  • Take a look at the corrected article. Does it acknowledge the original mistake, or that a correction’s been made?
  • If you spotted a mistake in a newspaper, or on broadcast news or the web, would you report it?
  • How would you choose to report it?
Supplemental Media & Links:

[Originally prepared for the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, January 2017.]

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