Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Mike Daisey incident illustrates the best in modern journalism

You might think that after some recent posts, I'd be reluctant to jump in with a counterintuitive headline like this and I'll admit I did hesitate a bit but I think the central point here is getting obscured and it's an incredibly important one.

We have always had and will always have people like Mike Daisey, serial fabulists with a gift for self-promotion. We will also always have journalistic sluggards who don't bother to check their facts and derivative hacks who pass on the conventional wisdom without scrutiny or independent thought.

The question is what do we do about these people, and the answer recently has generally been little or nothing. By comparison, the response to the Daisey incident was strong and apt and it gives us a simple template that, if followed, could go a long way toward fixing American journalism.

This is the rule: when you screw up, you take responsibility, try to set the story straight and (here is the essential part) you make your retraction at least as long and at least as prominent as the story you're apologising for.

These days, journalistic malpractice (when not ignored altogether) is generally punished by inclusion in a box that almost no one ever reads on the second page of a newspaper (and even that mild of a penalty is enough to generate whining and self-pity from journalists like David Carr*).

Just imagine what things would be like if errors in front page stories were always followed by front page corrections.

* From Fresh Air

"After I started [at the Times], I quickly ended up on page two ... the Corrections. They're not buried to us; that is a hall of shame ... it's a page you want to totally stay off of ... It doesn't matter where the error occurs — it always follows you around.

"Part of the deal of working at The New York Times is that your readers, a portion of whom are church ladies and copy ninnies and fact freaks, they wait like crows on a wire for you to make the slightest error and then descend, caw, caw, caw-ing, every time you screw up. It still is something that wakes me up at night."

1 comment:

  1. I think the terrifying thing was the Mike Daisy could even think that such obvious fabrications would work. That being said, the response of This American Life was ideal and you are rightt hat this should not be overlooked.