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Journalism Is Never Perfect: The Politics of Story Corrections and Retractions

• December 20, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: JURGENFR/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Do reporters and editors have an obligation to get the story right—even if not the first time?

Not once, not twice, but on 18 separate occasions over the last year and a half the Associated Press misrepresented a critical detail about slaughtering horses for human consumption in the United States. The pivotal point, which remains unchanged, makes it sound as if domestic slaughter is a more humane option for American horses than keeping them alive. This mistake, which has repeatedly been brought to the AP’s attention, offers insight into the contested issue of media retractions and corrections.

Forbes contributor Vickery Eckhoff, who previously worked for The New York Times and Dow Jones, caught the AP error early and let them know about it often. The gist of her complaint centered on the following claim, a version of which the AP included in every one of its stories on horse slaughter:

A June 2011 report from the federal Government Accountability Office shows cases of horse abuse and abandonment on a steady rise since Congress effectively banned horse slaughter by cutting funding for USDA inspection programs in 2006.

Note the implication: With the end of domestic slaughter came the rise of horse suffering. Given that meatpacking plants are now lobbying hard for the reauthorization of horse slaughter, and given that, due to the AP’s misinterpretation, they can now do so on purported humanitarian grounds, this “finding” could not have been better timed for the meatpacking plants or more consequential for consumers and animal advocates.

But the problem, as I reported in Pacific Standard earlier this year, is the fact that horse slaughter, contrary what the AP claimed, did not end in 2006, effectively or otherwise. Instead, it continued through November of 2007. This difference matters. Critically.

Why? Because horse abuse, according to GAO data, in fact increased between 2005 and 2007, when slaughterhouses were up and running. In essence, the AP, by erroneously reporting that horse slaughter plants closed in 2006 rather than 2007, reached the opposite conclusion than what the GAO data offered.

It was a mistake. It happens. And the media has a standard way of dealing with it: It retracts or corrects the story. The AP understands this tactic well. It recently filed retractions in two high-profile cases, one in which it alleged that Virginia democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe lied to federal officials and the other in which it misreported a quote by Senator Rand Paul.

But, in the case of the Eckhoff findings, the AP has dug in its heels. It has done so despite her careful documentation and publication of the errors. In an email, Eckhoff described her experience seeking a correction from the AP:

I got yelled at, sworn at, had my journalistic credentials knocked, was hung up on, bounced around and rebuffed as I worked my way up the chain from the reporter, to her news editor, the corrections department and a regional editor overseeing news in 13 different states.

After two emails to an AP editor seeking comment on the prospect of retraction, I was finally sent to Paul Colford, director of AP Media Relations. His response was unequivocal: “AP stands by the stories.”

But in light of Eckhoff’s work, the AP is standing by flawed journalism. Perhaps the reason is personal (at one point, according to Eckhoff, the AP reporter who wrote most of the slaughter stories said to her, “You sound like a fucking bitch”). Or perhaps it’s that a bunch of animal advocates pose less of a legal threat than Terry McAuliffe or Rand Paul. It’s hard to say.

Whatever the cause of the refusal to address the argument, the fact remains that, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the AP got it wrong, its failure to retract—or at least correct—articles based on what seems to be an obvious mistake places the AP in the position of supporting meatpacking plants while providing readers with inaccurate information.

ANOTHER RECENT MEDIA CASE—this one centering on a controversial study connecting genetically modified corn to tumors in rats—is more ambiguous. But it too raises interesting and potentially disturbing questions about the media’s obligation to revisit old stories when new information comes to light and compromises the initial reporting.

In September 2012, Food and Chemical Toxicology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a study suggesting that genetically modified corn causes cancer. The research, led by Gilles-Eric Séralini of the University of Caen, in France, indicated that rats fed NK603 maize, a variety genetically modified to be resistant to an herbicide called glyphosate, were more likely to get tumors than those fed a non-GMO diet. Anti-GMO zealots pounced, using the study as fresh fuel for their Frankenfood mission.

Journalists, though, were a bit more circumspect. Strangely, Séralini demanded (backed by the threat of a fine) that reporters who were given advance copies of the article seek neither independent comment nor evaluation. Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott, who wrote about the study within days of its publication, did not get an advance copy, and thus was not privy to this suspicious stipulation. Even so, he was still unsure about the study’s integrity.

Although well known as a staunch critic of GMOs, Philpott showed restraint, warning readers that the findings were not “as clear-cut as they seem at first glance,” that it was “already generating plenty of debate,” and that many scientists believed that the sample size was too small “to draw any conclusions.”

Caveats delivered, Philpott then went on to monger what seemed to be legitimate fear. He wrote that the study’s findings “paint a troubling picture” as they “shine a harsh light on the ag-biotech industry’s claim mantra that GMOs have indisputably proven safe to eat.” He noted that the study “surely counts as the most ambitious and comprehensive safety assessment of GMOs ever conducted” and he quotes Séralini as saying it was “the longest and most detailed [GMO feeding study] that has ever been done.”

These were perfectly reasonable assessments—assuming the study was conclusive. But earlier this month the journal that published the Séralini article abruptly retracted it. The circumstances surrounding the retraction appear to be as controversial as the final decision. (Why, for example, was the assessment that the study wasn’t conclusive determined during the peer review stage? And who made inconclusiveness grounds for scientific rejection?) Nonetheless, the retraction stands, and it does so with the support of “an avalanche of criticism the study has faced.”

Does Philpott, not to mention dozens of other journalists who relied on the study to generate public health concerns over GMOs, have an obligation to follow-up with another piece noting the retraction? Should reporters clarify that their anti-GMO warnings were based on work that has since been officially debunked?

According to Adam Marcus, who runs Retraction Watch, a popular blog dedicated to covering scientific retractions, a news outlet is under no legal obligation to revisit the original piece. That said, when asked if he thought a magazine had a duty to issue a clarification or retraction under such circumstances, he said, “Ethically, I think they should consider following up on their original reporting.”

In an email, Philpott suggested that he had no intentions of revisiting the Séralini affair anytime soon. With some amusement, he noted that, “the very concerns that I pointed out have been cited as the reason for retraction.” With less amusement, he lamented how, after his piece ran, “I got lambasted as credulous and anti science.” He explained how several scientists told him that the Séralini study “followed the protocols, including rat type and sample size, laid down by Monsanto in its own research and merely extended the time frame.” As a result, Philpott wrote, “I suppose the Monsanto studies should be considered flawed, too.”

Unlike the AP case, this one is more of a toss up. After all, nothing in Philpott’s original story, at the time, was wrong. But the retraction of the Séralini study changes that. It means that readers will encounter Philpott’s story and continue to take to heart the assertion that a peer-reviewed study positively linked GMO corn to cancer when, as it now appears, there is not a convincing connection. At the least, a short follow up would be a judicious move.

THE BEST MEDICINE IS transparency. On his blog Regret the Error, Craig Silverman recounts an instructive story to this effect. He notes how the Queens Chronicle ran a piece with the headline “Queens Dissed on City Council Speaker Meetings.” It reports that the borough of Queens was left out as a meeting site for a public forum on the next city council speaker. But this was flat out wrong, as a meeting was, in fact, held in Queens. Silverman writes: “In this situation, I often see news organizations try to find a way to offer a correction that spares them a measure of embarrassment. That usually means not acknowledging that their premise was incorrect, or even removing the entire article without offering a correction.”

But this time Silverman was surprised. The Queens Chronicle editor wrote: “This article is wrong in its entirety. A forum was held in Queens Nov. 14. That event was announced by someone other than Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and was not referenced in his Nov. 18 announcement because it had already happened. We regret the error.” This notice was placed at the head of the original piece. Silverman adds, “It’s nice to see such a blunt admission when it’s so clearly called for, though unfortunate that it strikes me as being a somewhat rare thing for a journalist to do.”

The AP and Séralini cases—as well as the Queens Chronicle incident—remind us of the obvious point that journalism is never perfect. Sometimes it’s very far from it. The good news is that, with the mainstreaming of online journalism, even the best reporting can and should become works-in-progress, files of information open to updating and refining, corrections and retractions. There’s simply too much data now on hand, and too many people pursuing it, for any work of journalism to be the last word on anything. And as for being embarrassed goes, best to get over it. Mistakes get made. Lumps get taken. We move on, smarter and better informed.

James McWilliams
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @the_pitchfork.

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