Media

Dear Media: ‘I’m Sorry’ Isn’t Good Enough

Lesson No. 1 from campaign 2016: Journalists need to be more careful.

Dear Media: 'I'm Sorry' Isn't Good Enough

What lessons will the news media take from campaign 2016? (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Note to journalists: In the digital age where correcting misinformation is as difficult as placing first in the New York Marathon, “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it.

I’m tired of media apologies. Do your job correctly in the first place, and they won’t be necessary. Friday was full of apologies and pro forma promises to do better.

In the afternoon, a jury found Rolling Stone magazine liable for defamation based on a now-debunked 2014 University of Virginia fraternity gang rape story. The magazine later retracted the story. But by then a lot of damage had been done, especially making it even more challenging to cover the already difficult and underreported subject of campus rape.

After the verdict, Rolling Stone issued an embarrassing statement they would never have had to issue if they’d been more careful at the start.

Well, Rolling Stone, your failings do deflect from this important issue.

“In our desire to present this complicated issue from the perspective of a survivor, we overlooked reporting paths and made journalistic mistakes that we are committed to never making again,” Rolling Stone said in the statement.

Referring to Nicole Eramo, the university administrator who filed the suit, the statement went on to say: “We deeply regret these missteps and sincerely apologize to anyone hurt by them, including Ms. Eramo. It is our deep hope that our failings do not deflect from the pervasive issues discussed in the piece, and that reporting on sexual assault cases ultimately results in campus policies that better protect our students.”

Well, Rolling Stone, your failings do deflect from this important issue. You aren’t operating on a shoestring. Admitting you “overlooked reporting paths” is particularly galling for a magazine once hailed for first-rate investigative reporting.

Earlier in the day, another atonement. Bret Baier, anchor of Fox’s evening newscast Special Report, issued an apology for a false report. This one tarnishes claims that Baier anchors a straight news program.

On Wednesday, Baier told viewers that an FBI investigation into the Clinton Foundation would “likely” result in an indictment of Secretary Hillary Clinton.

The internet went crazy.

Mainstream reporters quickly debunked the story while Republican nominee Donald Trump and his supporters spread it like wildfire as indisputable truth, thrilled that their chants of “lock her up” might finally be realized.

Baier’s first reaction after journalists jumped on him, was to say his wording had been “inartful.” By Friday, he gave a full mea culpa.

Yes, indictment is a loaded word.

“Well, that wasn’t just inartful,” Baier told a Fox News morning anchor. “It was a mistake. And for that I’m sorry. I should have said they will continue to build their case. ‘Indictment,’ obviously, is a very loaded word, Jon, especially in this atmosphere, and no one knows if there would or would not be an indictment no matter how strong investigators feel their evidence is. It’s obviously a prosecutor who has to agree to take the case and make that case to a grand jury.”

Yes, indictment is a loaded word — especially in this election-crazed environment and only days before America picks a president. Baier also reported that Clinton’s server had been hacked — also false.

And worse fears were realized. Even after Baier said his information was wrong several on Fox continued to repeat the mistake.

The errors by Rolling Stone and Baier make the next example seem like child’s play. But it is one more example of a journalist playing loose with the facts.

ABC News found itself on Friday pulling correspondent Linsey Davis off a South Carolina story after an anonymous source sent CNN a photo of a clearly staged shot.

On Good Morning America, Davis was standing in a field in front of yellow police tape telling viewers about a registered sex offender allegedly holding a 30-year-old woman in a storage container. It was your standard crime-story shot: a reporter apparently at the scene with the requisite yellow police tape. But what the anonymously sent photo showed was Davis standing in front of yellow tape strung between two pieces of camera equipment, designed to fake an on-the-scene feel.

“This action is completely unacceptable and fails to meet the standard of ABC News,” said Julie Townsend, the network’s vice president of communications.

I’m a big fan of news organizations admitting when they make mistakes. The downside, though, is that when you correct them, the news outlet is forced to restate and share the bad information. Research shows that repeating the mistake makes people more likely to remember it.

In the digital age, transparency is the new objectivity.

Honest mistakes do happen. But lately news organizations need a reminder of the basics.

Get there on time, and if you don’t, don’t stage. Be transparent about what you do. In the digital age, transparency is the new objectivity.

And absolutely do not report what you believe in your heart of hearts to be true, or what one source only tells you is true.

Use many sources. Triangulate. Get rid of preconceived notions. Report deeply.

When journalists make mistakes, the obvious occurs: Credibility is lost. Misinformation is propagated. And those who smugly believe the media are low-life fabricators become smugger.

Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard is an award-winning journalist and expert on the media and media ethics. The former ombudsman for NPR, she recently returned from two years in Afghanistan where she worked with Afghan journalists and the US Embassy. Follow her on Twitter: @Ombudsman.