By Meggan Desmond
On July 8, 2009, the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper slipped a communion wafer into his pocket during the funeral of former Governor General Romeo Leblanc. The story shocked Catholics across Canada. The problem was, there was no proof it was true.
The paper also reported that Saint John priest Monsignor Brian Henneberry had ‘demanded’ the Prime Minister explain what happened to the communion wafer. That wasn’t true either.
And over the summer, the paper was forced to apologize for an apparently plagiarized news story.
It was a trying few weeks for the province’s premiere newspaper, and one that cost it both an editor and publisher.
Craig Silverman had never seen anything like it.
Errors like this are the stock in trade for Silverman, who runs the popular ‘Regret the Error’ website. The site reports on media corrections, retractions, apologies, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the press. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a paper have such a repeated number of significant missteps in such a short amount of time.”
Silverman feels that the paper has done a terrible job of being open and accountable about the mishaps that have happened over the summer. His biggest frustration with the paper is that it hasn’t really explained how the mistakes were made.
Issuing apologies and corrections is not enough. “They really haven’t learned the lesson of transparency. Chances are they’re going to continue to pay the price as the result of that.
Silverman has been a freelance writer for more than a decade. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Globe And Mail, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Star and many other publications. He is also the author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He also co-wrote Mafiaboy: How I Cracked the Internet and Why It’s Still Broken, with Michael Calce.
Silverman created his website, in 2004 from his Montreal home office, after he decided he wanted to join the world of blogging.
“I was thinking what blog could I launch that would add something of use, that would add an interesting voice to the many ones that were already out there?”
Being a media junkie, he wanted to blog about journalism or something related to the media. That was when he hit upon the idea of corrections. He figured that accuracy was one of the most important issues for journalists but when he went looking for blogs about accuracy and corrections, he didn’t find any.
“I was kind of happy not to have found any because that meant I found my niche,” says Silverman.
When Silverman isn’t working on his website, he’s writing weekly columns for the Columbia Journalism Review and the Hour. He is also the associate editor for PBS MediaShift.
Originally from Halifax, Silverman attended Concordia University, and in 1999 he graduated with a journalism degree. He remembers learning about accuracy and getting your facts right, on his first day of journalism school.
At Concordia, if a student misspelled a persons name in their course work, he or she immediately lost one letter grade. So if he or she had written something and recieved a B+ but a persons name was spelled wrong, it automatically went down to a C+ paper.
“That (accuracy) had been drummed into me,” laughed Silverman.
In early 2004, he wrote up the proposal for ‘Regret the Error’. He sent it out to his friends to get some feedback, and then he didn’t do much with it.
An ‘error’ is born
One night in September the idea popped back into his head while he was watching TV.
He created his website in two hours.
“I just sat up off my couch, I grabbed my laptop and I went and I signed up for an account with a blogging service and basically created the site… and then I launched in October 2004,” said Silverman.
His website recorded 10,000 hits on the first day.
He sent out a few emails to his friends and places like media bistro blogs about the website, and suddenly, it was a hit.
“I did not expect that,” says Silverman.
This sparked something in his mind. If it was interesting for one day, there’s a good chance it might be interesting on a long term basis. He never imagined that two hours of work could lead to a book, columns and many interviews.
“The truth is, this is the best thing professionally I’ve done in my life. Which was to decide, ‘oh what the hell, I’ll start that blog.’ It’s crazy,” said Silverman.
Initially, the website had a light-hearted goal. He would find the best and the worst media errors and corrections. But the site quickly evolved into a place where he could raise the bar in journalism for accuracy and the way errors are dealt with.
Many journalists see the site as a place where they don’t want to end up; they also see it as a place where they can learn from their colleague’s mistakes.
Global video journalist Devin Stevens was introduced to ‘Regret the Error’ by KJR.
He would like to think that people in the media are doing the best that they can. But newsrooms barely have enough reporters these days, let alone independent fact checkers.
“We should be embarrassed already,” said Stevens, “whether or not Craig Silverman is collecting them (errors) and putting them on a blog.”
Cape Breton Post assignment editor Steve McInnis also had not read ‘Regret the Error’ before, but it’s not a place he wants to see his name. He said it would make him be a bit more careful.
“It’s the fool who laughs at somebody else who makes a mistake,” said McInnis.
In journalism, you only have your reputation on which to stand. For McInnis, your reputation is only as good as the clarity and accuracy of your last story.
McInnis explains that every day journalists point out the flaws of other people. They are the watchdogs of society, and they hold people accountable for their mistakes. This means journalists must meet an even higher standard of accountability.
Trust no more
A 2009 survey conducted by Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press showed that trust in the media has hit a new low. Only 29 per cent of American’s believed news media got the facts right.
That’s a drop of 26 percentage points since 1985.
In 2002, Leger Marketing conducted a survey which showed that 53 percent of Canadians trust journalists.
In 2008, Canadians were surveyed again. Trust had dropped to 41 per cent.
That’s a drop of 12 percentage points in only six years.
Lawyers and insurance brokers are more trusted than journalists.
For Stevens, the 24 hour news cycle is contributing to the declining numbers.
He feels that the journalists do not have time to digest and double check their facts before they have to publish their stories.
Ryerson journalism professor Ivor Shapiro feels that journalists do care about accuracy.
“People might be as accurate as possible and still make mistakes,” he said.
But Shapiro says the economy of journalism does not always support the efforts that are required to ensure accuracy.
Silverman says that journalists are in a trust crisis, and one way to rebuild that trust is recommitting to accuracy.
But mistakes still happen.
Silverman once worried that he would get kicked out of the journalism profession because of ‘Regret the Error.’ Pointing out the flaws of your colleagues might have some harsh criticism, but the reaction has been quite the opposite.
“One of the great sources of pride I have with the site is that I’ve never actually heard from a journalist who got in touch with me and said ‘what you’re doing is bad for the profession.’”
Most journalists contact him to either explain how the error was made or say they deserved to get noted for it.
Silverman does not feel that he has directly improved the level of accuracy in the media, but has raised the level of awareness.
“Hopefully I’m pushing us in the right direction,” he said.
Kyle Shaw, editor of The Coast, would have mixed feelings if his work appeared on “Regret the Error.’
“There is the initial mortification, and a sense that it mattered…mattered enough,” said Shaw.
Shaw was Silverman’s editor when he interned at The Coast.
Shaw described Silverman as ambitious, witty and the sort of guy who could pass for a dedicated slacker but was very far from. “He had a sort of rock and roller look,” said Shaw, “Craig was the perfect fit (for The Coast).”
He knew right away that Silverman was destined to rise to the top.
On average 1,000 people read ‘Regret the Error’ every day, and many of them send in corrections and errors that they have come across themselves. It’s impossible for Silverman to keep track of all of the newspapers and online publications that exist. He relies on his readers to step up and send him errors they come across, especially when it comes to small community newspapers.
In addition to his dedicated readers, Silverman has his own string of networks set up to track errors and corrections. Google Alerts and RSS Feeds pick up most of the corrections. But not all media outlets treat corrections the same way. They don’t write them the same way and they don’t put them under the same kind of headline.
“You have to be a weirdo like me who’s read thousands of corrections to know what the sort of key words are,” said Silverman.
If corrections are not covered by his first two methods, then he uses an online listing of correction pages, which he lists on the right hand side of his website.
He spends roughly an hour a day digging for corrections.
“I don’t work with music on, I don’t have any pets around, and I tend to not just call people up for a quick chat, so it’s a pretty quiet atmosphere,” he said.
When Silverman is not doing all of his media craziness, he boxes, reads, and watches TV. And the ten-foot commute to his home office helps him manage his schedule.
Above his computer desk, he has a print of former President Truman holding up the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune on which the headline screams ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’ This is from the November 3rd, 1948 debacle when the Tribune concluded that Governor Dewey had won the presidential election, before the results were in.
Truman had actually won the election, and the Tribune’s disaster is the most recognized error in press history.
Dalhousie French major Jarrett MacLeod said ‘Regret the Error’ is great. He’s a regular reader of the website.
He says that all news organizations should be held accountable of their mistakes.
“I find it really interesting because a lot of the papers covered in his blog were ones that I read,” said MacLeod.
He likes how the website balances more serious mistakes with light hearted comedic ones.
“Upon first read, it might come off as comedic, because most of the errors he’s reporting on are so dead wrong. But if you take a second look, they (errors) show a lack of fact checking in reporting,” he said.
“It’s kind of a weird thing,” Silverman says about the popularity of his website, “because I work in such solitary circumstances.”
He feels like people know him through his website. On average, he receives more than a thousand emails per month. It’s an interesting dynamic, because people email and comment on a regular basis, so Silverman develops a sort of relationship with them; even though he’s never met them.
‘Regret the Error’ has unlocked new doors for him in journalism. He has no idea what he would be doing if he hadn’t taken the two hours to create the website, but he does know it would be drastically different.