Caveat for those of you looking for a post solely on religious content instead of some general observations -- wait a few hours and another one will come along!
What should we, as a sometimes well-informed and sometimes not-so-much informed public, expect in terms of accuracy from our major media outlets?
A large part of our focus at GetReligion is on stories where we believe a journalist has used a vague term, not answered a basic question, erred on doctrine, or simply gotten the facts wrong. But while a blogger or columnist can act as a corrective, and perhaps a watchdog for mistakes, he or she cannot replace editors and fact-checkers inside a media outlet.
As I commented on Wednesday's post, with the crisis in the "old media" and the birth of the blogosphere, the lines between straightforward news and opinion can start to seem (although I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that they should not be) a little blurred. It used to be that one knew when one was reading analysis, for example, and when one was reading or watching a news story. It's not always so clear now. For example, both CNN (as in the recent Lou Dobbs flap), and Fox News seem to continually be embroiled in some controversy over "slanted" reporting or reporters.
In my experience as someone who has written many commentaries, editors have a particularly tough job policing the facts when it comes to columnists. Frankly, it scares me how often I've gotten basically a free pass on fact-checking for a column. And I'm not a well-known columnist. As mentioned in Wednesday's post, the New York Times recently was criticized by Public Editor Clark Hoyt for poor communication and lack of "vigilance" by editors that facilitated the publication of a error-prone appreciation (ironic, eh?) of the late Walter Cronkite by media critic Alessandra Stanley.
So -- how well does a paper like the New York Times analyze and learn from its own mistakes? And a natural corollary question -shouldn't the standards, particularly at an eminent paper like the New York Times be the same for everybody? These are questions raised by James Rainey, media critic for the Los Angeles Times.
Here are a few of Rainey's conclusions:
In fact, the botched Cronkite appreciation and the brutally frank corrective actions (including last Sunday's scathing deconstruction by the paper's public editor) expose both a chronic weakness and a persistent strength inside the New York Times, America's most important journalistic institution.
The Times has a bad habit, revealed by the Stanley critique and in recent years by the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller incidents, of letting a few well-connected journalists run amok. At the same time, the Times has shown the strength to subject itself to a level of self scrutiny that some (in a Web Age when corrections of grievous errors come labeled as "updates") would not even pretend.
The New York Times, in short, needs to enforce its high standards more uniformly, regardless of whose byline appears at the top of the story. But its TV critic's latest stumble down Error Alley is hardly evidence, as some would like to suggest, that journalism's top brand has been hopelessly compromised.
A few "well-connected journalists" running amok? Sounds like something out of a low-budget horror flic -- not a pretty sight. But is this permissiveness reason to dismiss the reporters (or the commentators) at New York Times as hopelessly wrong? No. That's because the paper continues to apply a level of self-scrutiny to its mistakes unusual in many newspapers, and lots, if not most, of news blogs.
By the way, here at the Editor&Publisher website is New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller's response to the Rainey article.
Check out Gawker.com if you want to read some gleeful attacks on Ms. Stanley and the New York Times (because of the high quota of four-letter-words to other perfectly servicable Anglo-Saxon adjectives, I'm not providing a link).
Rainey does something different -- he looks at the facts, interviews sources willing to go on the record, and doesn't take cheap shots. We're entitled to expect that level of accuracy and balance from reporters, columnists and analysts -- but it's still commendable when we get it.
In this roiling democracy of the Internet, public scrutiny is greater, and public standards (hopefully) higher. But until somebody invents an infallible fact-checker, there's still plenty of room both for staff editors -- and for committed bloggers and commenters to make sure that, when a writer makes a factual mistake no "cow," whatever his or her byline, is considered sacred.
That includes, of course, religion reporting -- a field in which many writers get no training --and often have no particular faith background. That being said, it is also reasonable to expect that media outlets will continue to exercise self-scrutiny as they respond to criticism by other journalists (who love to talk about each other and critique their own profession), to the legitimate concerns of the public -- and to their own ideals.
Watch Christopher Hitchens take apart Stanley and some gifted female comedians in this video clip. A good example of criticism run completely amok.