How Airplane Crashes Are Like Judith Miller’s Reporting


My post about Alex Jones’s Fresh Air sparked a really interesting email discussion with a reader who pointed out another commonly-cited advantage of newspapers: their superior accuracy. Now, I think the accuracy of mainstream media outlets is sometimes overstated (see Jayson Blair, Dan Rather, and Judith Miller, for example), but it’s true that mainstream media sources make fewer mistakes per word than blogs do. However, I don’t think this is as big an advantage as people steeped in newspaper culture imagine. Writers should obviously make a reasonable effort to be accurate, but I think it is possible to demand too much accuracy. I think that sometimes we place unrealistic pressures on journalists to verify everything they writer, rather than simply acknowledging when they’re repeating something they haven’t been able to fully verify. The reader replied:

I think that saying we’re putting unrealistic pressures on journalists to verify everything is akin to saying that we are putting too much pressure on pilots to stay awake while flying planes. It’s a journalist’s job to get as close to 100% of the truth as possible, just as it’s a pilot’s job to be as close to 100% perfect when flying a plane.

This is a good point as far as it goes. Obviously, we’d rather have reporters be more rather than less accurate. But I also think it matters what the consequences of failure are. If you’re flying an airplane, the consequences are very high, so you invest a lot of resources in a safe landing. Likewise, if you’re investigating a potentially career-ending allegation of sexual abuse, then again the consequences for mis-reporting are high so you’d better be sure you’re right. On the other hand, if you’re a reporter who receives a tip about an upcoming Apple product, it might make more sense to just pass along the rumor and let the readers decide how credible it is. If it turns out to be wrong, there’s no particular harm done as long as you’re clear that it’s just a rumor.

384696997_f0ed3d2887I think a lot more of the news is in this latter category than mainstream journalists like to admit. A variant of Linus’s Law applies: “given enough eyeballs, all rumors are shallow.” That is, there’s no particular reason to think any given reporter is going to be in the best position to corroborate or debunk a rumor. In many cases readers (or other bloggers) might be much better positioned to substantiate or debunk a claim than the original reporter. On the other hand, a reporter can burn up a ton of time tracking down a minor detail on an unfinished story. It might make sense to simply disclose to the reader that the detail couldn’t be verified, and move on to the next story.

I think one of the reasons that newspapers have set such a high bar for the accuracy of their stories is because there was so little competition in the late 20th century newspaper market. If you’re the only major newspaper in a metropolitan area and you print an untrue rumor, that can do a lot of damage because it will be read by a ton of people with little opportunity for response. In contrast, in a world where there are hundreds of blogs in a metropolitan area, each with relatively small audiences, it’s much less damaging if one of them posts something that turns out to be untrue: many fewer people will read it, and it’s far more likely that others will notice the error and quickly correct it.

The New York Times getting a story wrong is like an airplane crash (or much worse if it leads to an unnecessary war in Iraq). Me getting a story wrong on this blog is like falling off my bike. That’s still bad, of course, but the amount of damage is much less. It would obviously be silly to say that bikes are more dangerous than airplanes because bikes crash more often—any given crash is much, much less painful. Similarly, bloggers indisputably make more mistakes than newspaper reporters, but this doesn’t necessarily mean newspapers are better. The blogosphere has superior methods for quickly catching and correcting mistakes that do happen.

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