As the saying goes, to err is human; to forgive, divine. Let’s just focus on the first part: We all make mistakes, and the best any of us can do is to acknowledge them and do our best to do better next time. This goes for journalists as well, but with some caveats.
Journalists should strive to never make mistakes in their work. This goes for typographical as well as factual mistakes; the best journalists hold themselves to the highest standards and are held accountable by their readers to those same standards. But it would be arrogant, unfair and wrong to say that any journalist, like anyone else, never messes up.
So generally speaking, the answer is no to both parts of the question: it is not career-ending when a journalist makes a mistake, and no, thanks to the editorial process at reputable publications, errors do not happen often. That said, some things fall through the cracks, and when a journalist’s mistakes are egregious and/or persistent, or the product of willful neglect or journalistic malpractice, then his or her journalism career can and should come to an end.
There are numerous examples of this in just the past 20 years. Look up Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Jonah Lehrer, Judith Miller and Jessica Pressler, to name a few. Each of these men and women achieved great journalistic success, most in their 20s, only to see their careers either go up in smoke or suffer serious setbacks and reputational damage when they published articles that were plagiarized, fabricated, falsely represented or otherwise wrong.
In each instance, however, the magazines and newspapers that published their work owned up to their role in the errors and apologized to their readers for letting them down. In the case of Jayson Blair, for instance, the New York Times ran a 7,000-word correction on a long series of stories he had either plagiarized or written from his apartment in Brooklyn, while claiming to be on location in Washington, D.C.
In short, not all mistakes are equal. It’s one thing to screw up the name of someone’s dog, or their professional title, or when they graduated from college. It’s another thing altogether to make their dog up, even if doing so seems perfectly innocuous at the time.
As Kovach and Rosenstiel rightly note in their book, The Elements of Journalism, to be an ethical journalist, you should:
- Never add anything that was not there.
- Never deceive the audience.
- Be transparent about your methods and motives.
- Rely on your own original reporting.
- Exercise humility.