STAFF EDITORIAL: No room for Error: Reporting in 2018 Must be Airtight

In the fight to uphold the credibility and dignity of the work done by reporters for The Phoenix and other news outlets, this week delivered a crushing blow to the cause.

The New York Times was forced to issue a lengthy correction after it printed a story that falsely implied United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Donald Trump appointee, was misusing taxpayer funds.

The original story in The Times detailed curtains for the U.N. Ambassador’s residence which cost a whopping $52,000. While the story noted the purchase was approved under former President Barack Obama’s administration, it wasn’t prominent and slanted the story.

The headline of the piece and its featured photo put Haley in full display, casting fake blame on her for exorbitant curtains.

This was a failure of editorial judgment and a failure from the reporter. It shouldn’t have been printed. And, even though the correction was humiliatingly tacked to the top of the story — it had already spread.

The damage had been done.

Not just to Haley, but to The Times, and more broadly, to the media as an entity — if one can call them that.

In a Sept. 3 column in The Atlantic, “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd discussed Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes’ role in the portrayal of the media in his column. Ailes helped create the narrative of the media showing their political leanings when mistakes are made — particularly against members of the Republican Party. 

Todd argued Ailes is partially responsible for creating the “fake news” narrative we bear witness to in 2018.

“Errors of omission and commission, inadvertent inattention and willful disregard, unconscious assumptions and deliberate distortions — Ailes collapsed all of it into the single charge of bias,” Todd wrote.

It’s not new to point out the press is under constant bombardment by President Trump and other politicians on the right with calls of media bias and “fake news.” While these are mostly hogwash, The Times’ crucial error doesn’t help.

The Phoenix also recently suffered a slew of avoidable and reprehensible errors. While it’s imperative to own up to and correct the mistake, the damage is already done. Our business survives only on mutual trust — at this fragile time, fair or not, that trust is easily shattered.

No mistake is acceptable.

There’s another side to this though. Whereas journalists are more than willing to own up to the most egregious mistakes and ask their readers to let them build their trust back, the same politicians who seem eager to sling the “fake news” monikers hold a double standard with the truth.

Fake news oversimplifies valid media criticism. Just because The Times had to issue a correction doesn’t mean they got off scott-free. The damage to their reputation is immeasurable; however, going so far as to call them “fake” is willful ignorance of the actual issue.

Criticism of this administration undoubtedly draws attention and advertising. While we can call it bad editing or distortion by a reporter, it certainly doesn’t help support the argument that journalists try to report fairly on the Trump administration.

An example of “fake news” proponents use against the media is TIME Magazine’s July 2 cover, which depicted Trump looking over a crying girl who was made out to have been separated from her family. Once the cover was released, it was found the girl wasn’t separated from her family at the border and the photo was cropped to make it appear otherwise.

The magazine issued a correction after the cover went to print, but the cries of “fake news” rained down from those who think media has joined hands to attack the Trump administration.

Todd also wrote about the idea that media is called “fake” when a story isn’t perfect. In the piece, he said every journalist has made some sort of error and the best way to respond is to shake it off and never make the mistake again.

“There’s not a serious journalist alive who hasn’t had one of those ‘gulp’ moments when [they] realize that [they] really messed up,” Todd wrote. “But serious journalists correct the record, serious journalistic organizations allow themselves to be held to account, own up to mistakes, and learn from them so they can do a better job the next time.”

Reporting is like an airlock. Even the smallest hole is devastating to the industry. While it’s valid for insiders to critique The Times, we must also protect against those who are seizing on this moment, not to protect the truth, but to advance an agenda.

While The Times rarely screws up this poorly, they own up to it when it happens. Trump and other politicians lie on a constant basis — yet the public seems to expect this, and it’s not dwelled on as much.

This week the country bore witness to one of the most shameful lies an American president has ever said. Trump falsely tweeted 3,000 American citizens didn’t die in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria’s devastation last year.

As purveyors of the truth, we must demand both accountability not just from ourselves when we screw up, but from authorities who undermine their own moral outrage. To do otherwise is to betray  the duty journalists have to both themselves and the public. 

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