My pet gripe


Have you noticed that Americans are always declaring something in their back yard the biggest, longest, cleanest, dirtiest and my personal favorite, most pristine?

One community in rural Northern California decided a while back to erect the nation's "tallest" flagpole as an economic development project. Grants were obtained and the pole went up. For a while it WAS apparently the tallest flagpole in the US. But the distinction lasted less than a year. At least this community was willing to acknowledge that it had indeed lost the short-lived distinction.

 From whence does this tendency come? Is it just Americans who do this sort of thing or is locally biased exaggeration a tendency in all human societies?

We should be able to rely on journalists to fact check claims of this type when they encounter them in the course of researching stories. And we should be able to rely on editors to require fact checking and to catch most misstatements of fact.

Unfortunately, fact checking seems to be out of favor these days necessitating the sort of correction in the comment above. This is curious in light of the web which makes fact checking so much easier than in the old days. 

But even the web can be confusing. I just did a web search - US longest free flowing river - and was not quickly able to get the answer. I had similar problems on I did however learn the name of Missouri's longest "free-flowing" river - the Meramec - as well as Alabama's longest - the Cahaba.

I suspect that the proliferation of factual errors in modern journalism is the result of changing values. Most journalists and their editors appear to be more concerned about whether the article reads well than about whether it is factually accurate.  In this they may simply be reflecting the values of readers.

I invite readers of this Blog to comment: Are factual errors proliferating or is it just that there is more "journalism" being done? Are major publications more or less likely to contain factual errors? What, if anything, should be done about the situation? 

And what about my pet gripe?  Is this a uniquely American tendency or is it universal?  Is it more prevalent in the American West than in other parts of the US?

While you are at it, please share your favorite example too.

Journalistic accuracy
Richard H Baker
Richard H Baker
Mar 05, 2009 03:17 PM
As a retired newspaper editor, I remember being educated to observe a strict mental discipline that few outside the profession understand. You got it right. No excuses. You made sure you got it right. And there were copy editors who would challenge anything that didn't seem right. I was well into mid-career before I even heard of a fact-checker

In part, though only in part, I blame the education system. College professors, overly concerned with their own status, decided for some reason that instilling traditional discipline and maintaining professional standards was "trade school." Instead of journalism professors, there were social scientists teaching "mass communication." That's only one cause, but it's a big one.

But meanwhile, I have a question for you: exactly what was the error you claim concerning the flagpole? Did the taller pole already exist? And given the problems you cite with Internet research, how would you know?

Frankly, right now I would rather see a reporter who knows how to explain the facts of home mortgages than one who knows how to compare the heights of flagpoles.
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson
Mar 05, 2009 03:27 PM
Just a few thoughts from a member of HCN's editorial staff:

- fact-checking isn't "out of favor" because journalists and editors don't care if stories are accurate. The credibility of a publication or a writer quickly vanishes when their work is consistently riddled with errors. However, thorough fact-checking requires an incredible amount of resources -- magazines that do perform it typically invest 1-3 days of staff time per article. For a tiny staff like HCN's, this is clearly impossible. Therefore, as you surmised, we rely on writers to do it. Most are conscientious and thorough, but occasionally an error does slip through. As editors, we keep our eyes out for mistakes, but we don't have time to verify every detail of a story. As you've observed, the Web can make some checking easier, but it can also introduce a lot of confusion. Regardless, at HCN it's always an occasion for disappointment and chagrin when we do get something wrong, no matter how small the error. And the same is true for any other news organization worth its salt (see the third point below).

- "Are major publications more or less likely to contain factual errors?" Sorry, but it's not clear what the intended comparison is -- more likely now than 10 years ago? More likely compared to small publications?

- "Are factual errors proliferating?" Well, if you consider all blogs, twitters, and citizen-written content to be "journalism", they probably are. These items are written quickly and casually, often without substantial research. But if you look at content written by professional journalists for reputable news organizations, I don't believe there's been any significant increase in errors in the past few years.

- of course Americans, especially Westerners, are prone to exaggeration. Bragging and boasting are part of our heritage, folklore and myths. And it's a source of regional pride to be able to claim that you have the biggest or longest whatever-it-is. But as you've discovered, such claims are very hard to verify. We try hard to avoid superlatives in HCN for just that reason.
Similar thoughts
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Mar 09, 2009 10:01 PM
As the current editor of a weekly newspaper, I agree from experience. It's just not possible to do all of that.

As for the "bragging" part, I think it's part of a larger "American exceptionalism" that I generally deplore.
The power of mythology
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Mar 05, 2009 04:54 PM
I see two issues here: 1) Local boosterism, and 2) lack-of-fact checking in published articles. The two are often conjoined.

For instance, there's the saga of Alfred (or Alferd) Packer, the Colorado Cannibal. His tale has become something of a tourist attraction in places like Lake City (where he allegedly murdered and ate his companion prospectors in the winter of 1873-74), Gunnison (where one of his trials took place), and Canon City (where he served a prison sentence). Often, the local propaganda proclaims that Packer was “the only man in American history ever convicted of cannibalism.”

Packer was convicted of murder; that verdict was reversed on a technicality, and at his second trial, he was convicted of manslaughter.

He was never convicted of cannibalism, and a fact-checking call to any Colorado lawyer would confirm that. Why? Cannibalism has never been a crime in Colorado. If it's not on the books, you can't be convicted of it. The closest applicable crime, a misdemeanor, is something like “treating a corpse in a disrespectful manner.”

Colorado legend also has it that the judge who sentenced Packer said something like “There was seven Democrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of 'em, you dirty man-eating son of a bitch. I sentences you to be hanged by the neck until dead.” In actuality, the judge issued a long and florid sentencing statement, talking about how Packer had besmirched one of the most beautiful valleys on earth.

To move on, around here the whitewater outfitters often promote “the free-flowing Arkansas River.” It is true that there's no dam across the main stem above Pueblo Reservoir. But every major tributary up here -- the South Arkansas, Chalk Creek, Cottonwood Creek, Lake Creek, etc. -- is dammed. The flow of the Arkansas is controlled, almost to the gallon, by the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District. So it's hardly a “free-flowing river.” But should we expect a travel writer to discover that fact, or an editor to track down all the tributary dams?

I'd like it if they did, but it's hard to fight mythology like Packer's. Recently we've been reading a lot about the sad demise of the Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver's two daily newspapers. Founded on April 23, 1859, it was Colorado's oldest newspaper. But often I read the myth that it was Colorado's “oldest continuous business.” It wasn't. The R&R Market in San Luis, 250 miles away, opened in 1857 and remains in business. A minute on a search engine would have found the truth, rather than the myth, but we live in hurried times.

And sometimes I'm leery of even dutiful fact-checking, because it relies on books, and in my experience, books don't get a lot of fact-checking. Back in 1984, I helped write a book on cocaine (The White Stuff, published by Dell in 1985). I had reams of notes and documentation in case the editor should call, but the only question I got concerned a line that “cocaine had become more available than a McDonald's hamburger.”

The editor called, saying he thought that was a gross exaggeration. I pointed out that at the time, I could pick up the phone and have cocaine delivered to my door, whereas the nearest McDonald's was nearly 60 miles away in Canon City. The editor, based in New York City, said he had trouble even imagining a place so remote and unpopulated as to be that far from a McDonald's. (Now there's one about half a mile down the street from my house).

But that was it for fact-checking on a non-fiction book published by a major publishing house.

Sure, I'd like to see more, but when you're dealing with legends and mythology, as with Packer and the Rocky Mountain News and our “free-flowing” river, you're facing a constant struggle, trying to get people to understand that what they think they know isn't true. Sometimes you just get tired of fighting.

Sounds like a urban myth?
Mar 08, 2009 01:58 AM
Obviously, I haven't done any research either, but I do need to at least question the entire paragraph:

"One community in rural Northern California decided a while back to erect the nation's 'tallest' flagpole as an economic development project. Grants were obtained and the pole went up. For a while it WAS apparently the tallest flagpole in the US. But the distinction lasted less than a year. At least this community was willing to acknowledge that it had indeed lost the short-lived distinction."

This has the exact structure of many urban myths--unnamed place, vague sense of time, specious specificity ("grants were obtained"--from whom?), and a strong and simple moral. Nice story, but I don't believe it from the facts presented here.

As to the subject of the blog, I have always felt that there are (at least) two kinds of journalists--those that like a story, and those that like facts. When the two come together, for example in John McPhee, magic happens.
tall things
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek
Mar 08, 2009 08:30 AM
If you go to McKinleyville, CA (aka Oklahoma-by-the-sea), you can see what's hailed as the world's tallest totem pole.
Thank you!
Mar 08, 2009 02:44 PM
Now I have to see it.
gripes and goats
Leslie Vreeland
Leslie Vreeland
Mar 10, 2009 03:34 PM
You say: "I suspect that the proliferation of errors in modern journalism is a result of changing values." I disagree. Modern professional journalists (I'm one) still believe, have always believed, that facts matter -- that what you print must be accurate. It's the only thing you have to hang your hat on in journalism: if one thing you say isn't true, why should anyone believe the rest of it? We work hard to get things right, as we must. We're the ones with the credibility.

To the extent that we don't -- and again I am distinguishing professional journalists from independent bloggers, citizen journalists, etc. -- it's at least in part because there are more claims on our time than before. It's not enough to write a story for print or even online; you're probably also expected to blog about it for the publication's website. Talk about it on TV. Be available for radio interviews. Twitter and peep. All the more reason to get the damn thing right in the first place, especially since it's out there on Google where it will track you till you die. But with an increasingly elastic set of responsibilities, it gets awfully easy to screw up a few details. Not that we're off the hook: I don't think you can expect editors, even super-persnickety copy editors, to catch inaccuracies. They can help, but how can they really know? In the end, the truth of a story, including the facts, must come down to us. As it was, and (I hope) ever shall be.
Journalistic Accuracy
Michael White
Michael White
Mar 11, 2009 04:27 PM
I've been in the business for more than 30 years with three books and numerous stints as a reporter, editor, copy editor, and ME under my belt. What I've seen over the years is, in no small part, a steady deterioration of journalistic quality spawned in journalism schools that emphasize and champion a "change the world and make a difference" mentality rather than a striving for fair, balanced and accurate reportage. Many, if not most, people who work go in journalism nowadays - either on the academic or "street" side - should have pursued social work as a life's endeavor. The key is to meld new technologies with journalism's time-honored standards of "getting it right" and communicating it to a public that expects and deserves better from smug, snarky social engineers, who today pose as editors and reporters. The public isn't stupid and this, in no small part,is the real reason why journalists have a favorability rating only slightly above lawyers, politicians, and used car salesmen. This transcends all the whining about the economy and the sooner publishers and other industry decision makers face it, the better for all of us.