WikiLeaks Reporting Error Corrected, Thanks To Former Chronicle Scribe Henry Norr
Calling Norr "one persistent listener," NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard said the radio news organization has been warned not to report that WikiLeaks has released "thousands" of State Department cables. Why? Norr wants news to be well, accurate; WikiLeaks had released only 1,344 such documents at last note.
Norr was fired in April 2003 after he attended a demonstration against the Iraq war. According to Shepard's Dec. 30 post, "thanks to Norr's doggedness (a) correction is on the Web, and, hopefully, NPR won't make the same mistake again."
Shepard says Norr launched his complaint against NPR on Dec. 13:
"Do you guys just make stuff up and present it as fact?" Norr said in an e-mail. "You begin your 'review' of this story by saying 'First, the website released thousands of confidential U.S. documents.' That's simply not true. All you have to do is go to the website in question and you'll see that it has thus far released precisely 1,344 of the documents in question - less than one percent of the 251,287 apparently in their possession. 1,344 is not 'thousands!'"An NPR editor told Shepard that WikiLeaks had indeed released thousands of "documents," noting the organization's earlier postings pertaining to the war in Afghanistan. Undeterred, Norr dug up nine stories where NPR reporters had in fact described WikiLeaks release of thousands of "cables."
Shepard didn't immediately move to correct the error. And, she writes, she heard from Norr a week later: "So... my message from last Tuesday didn't convince you there's been a problem with NPR's reporting?"
Shepard then asked editors to fire off a memo to its staff, demanding they stop using the word "thousands" when referring to the WikiLeaks cables.
|Henry Norr has time ... for accuracy|
So she did: "It's just plain sloppy and embarrassing to the profession to have so many reputable news organizations getting the numbers wrong," Shepard wrote.
We'd be the last ones to deny the pleasure of engaging NPR's ombudspeople in online dialogue.
But we'd like to suggest Norr's "thousands" critique is several degrees off. The news media has a tradition of being unusually imprecise with numbers (note my use of "several" in the previous sentence.) Evasiveness is something never discussed among news writers. But everybody does it, perhaps to fend off the need for corrections after a story is published.
If you doubt this, put the term "more than a dozen" into the news search box of a popular search engine. As of 2:52 p.m. on Monday, there were 7,157 hits, with the top one being "more than a dozen Tampa candidates qualify by petition."
That story did not describe an ephemeral, mysterious, hidden, huge, microscopic, distant, or otherwise hard-to-count number. Few such instances of needless news imprecision do. Rather, it referred to the solid, unchangeable number of people who had petitioned to be a candidate for mayor following a noon, Jan. 31 deadline. This is typical of the news business' tradition of mathematical vagueness for vagueness sake.
For journalists, failing to write "1,344 State Department cables" when they covered WikiLeaks may have constituted a mathematical error. But they were obeying sacred industry practice, which instructs us never to use an actual number when approximation will do.
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