Q: How do journalists fix mistakes after spreading fake news?


There’s a false premise lurking in the second half of the question as worded. The suggestion that professional journalists are somehow knowingly, willingly cranking out misinformation, thereby “spreading fake news,” is a misuse of the term and truly “fake news.”

It’s important, as emphasized in another recent post here, that we unpack that phrase. “Fake news” has become a rallying cry used often by President Trump. He began to tweet it a lot circa late 2016, just after his election, to discredit and delegitimize accurate, fully-vetted news that he simply does not like to hear. By Trump’s own on-the-record account in at least one major interview, it’s a deliberate strategy to create a discouraged, confused populace who will give up on tracking the foibles, follies and trespasses of people in power.

Does this mean there is no such a thing as actual “fake news”—that is, wildly made-up stuff that’s patently false? Absolutely not. Bad actors do spread misinformation. Or create puckish hoaxes. That kind of viral garbage deserves the label, “fake news.” But even well-meaning reporters get stories wrong sometimes. That is not “fake news.” That’s flawed newsgathering. And it’s a flaw perpetually under repair in the daily flow of reporting from reliable outlets.

Why is this problem baked into professional journalism?

A common reason, as we saw in our first lecture: The need for speed. The pressure to break news often leads reporters to go with information that hasn’t been fully vetted.

If it’s a small error, the solution is to run a so-called correction. The New York Times is well-known for the punctiliousness of its print and online corrections boxes. All major news organizations and their online iterations continually issue emendations. But these typically concern comparatively unimportant or obvious things: name misspellings; wrong dates; consequential typos; misstated job titles; a word or two heard wrong in a comment or statement, as in the example below.

What about massively wrong news, like reports that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was dead? In January 2011, Giffords was shot point-blank in the head while holding a constituent meeting at a grocery-store parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. Early cable-news reports wrongly reported that she was dead from her injuries, based, as far as we know, on a single source that turned out to be incorrect. (This news-judgment lapse was dramatized in a memorable segment from the HBO show The Newsroom).

How do you fix such a dreadful error? It calls for not just correction, but immediate on-air retraction. Usually such updates are supplemented by social-media bulletins, pushed to multiple platforms. Sometimes journalists who get a major story wrong write extended, bylined mea culpas. Occasionally an outside tribunal reviews a problematic story and reports on it, as you’ll read when we tackle a now-discredited Rolling Stone article titled “A Rape on Campus.”

Confirmation bias, sloppy fact-checking, lack of editorial oversight—all these things can compromise reporting. But credible journalists take responsibility for their mistakes and are accountable for them. They provide forums for public feedback. They concede when they’ve screwed up. It’s that commitment to accountability that helps distinguish journalism from any other kind of information (as you’ll be learning more about soon).

There are many interested parties who would like to weaken the news media. They delight in highlighting its face plants. They want exceptions to be perceived as the rule. But journalistic truth is inherently provisional. It will change over time as more information becomes available. It’s childish and polemical to insist that a serious mistake from a particular outlet or reporter means that no one can ever trust any news story, ever again. Rejecting such absolutism is part of understanding the true value of news. And that’s why news literacy is so important. It helps us separate the intentionally fake from the inadvertently incorrect. It helps us see why and how mistakes happen–and how they are fixed. It lets us see more clearly through the ever-shifting cloud of octopus ink what is actual “fake news.”