Who pays or should pay when the media gets it wrong? Too often the one who pays is the person or business misidentified as doing something wrong. During the recent hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers the New York Post published photos of what they claimed were the suspects in the bombing. One article told of how one of the young men learned he had been identified as one of the suspects when he started getting threatening emails. He feared for his life as a result. When the FBI released photos of the real suspects, the Post made a retraction, but the damage had been done.
Kate Allen writing in a blog on April 22, 2013 quotes former CNN news anchor Ali Velshi, “But being wrong is, at best, a hard kick in the gut. At its worst, it can cost a journalist his or her career and an organization its credibility. Whether or not you tweet at us about it, we journalists actually do understand that being right is all that should matter.” Two questions arise here: do journalists really understand that being right is all that should matter? and what should happen to the journalist and news media that does get it wrong?
The answer to the first is no. Most journalists do not really understand that being right is all that should matter. They frankly don’t seem to care. How else can you explain, for example, that despite all the evidence to the contrary, most journalists insist on calling public money given to passenger trains and urban transit a subsidy, while calling public money given to roads, air travel and water travel an investment, despite it too being a subsidy. How many times have I seen trains referred to as “chugging”? Recently I saw a journalist referring to the Toronto to New York City train as a “commuter train”. Trains don’t chug and never have and commuter trains are local trains making frequent stops, while trains running long distances are intercity trains. When I posted a link to a video about what trains do and don’t do to a journalism list, someone emailed me wondering what that had to do with journalism. I shook my head in amazement. Some of this may seem trivial, but if a journalist can’t get simple little things right, it can call into question everything else they’ve written or said.
When it comes to who should pay, it should be the journalist and/or the media the person works for and not the person(s) or business(es) that have been wronged. Sometimes all that is required is an apology. Once I misspelled the name of a guy I knew. I apologized and he ribbed me about it for several years afterwards. I learned to be more careful. At other times something more serious is required. In the case of the New York Post I believe that young men they misidentified as being the Boston bombing suspects should be compensated in some way for the emotional distress they were put through.
We all make mistakes and journalists are no different. Ultimately when the media makes mistakes we all pay.