Why do journalists keep repeating the same mistake?

7 May 2021

3:33 AM

7 May 2021

3:33 AM

A single mistake in journalism can be forgiven. Perhaps the story was based on faulty information from a bad source and rushed through without a thorough vetting — probably due to a desire to be first to report — and then transparently corrected for the audience. But if the same mistake is repeated, over and over again, by the same news outlets who have taken leave of their basic journalistic duties, then alternative motives have to be explored. Something nefarious on behalf of these organizations and their sources may be afoot.

Since Joe Biden’s election, there have been three major instances of journalists publishing a story, watching it trend for days on social media and be discussed on cable news, only for it to be partially or completely retracted later. Damage done. The latest case involved Rudy Giuliani allegedly being warned by FBI sources that he was briefed on being a target for Russian intelligence campaigns. Like other similar stories it followed a particular pattern — story breaks, other news outlets ‘confirm’ story with anonymous sources, story falls apart, outlets suffer reputational damage. NBC News, the Washington Post and the New York Times were the perpetrators this time (as they so often are).

Last month, Joe Biden’s State Department finally debunked a story which Biden’s campaign had promoted: that Russia had put bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan for the Taliban to collect. In March the Washington Post was forced to issue a massive correction to their January blockbuster story that President Trump had instructed the Georgia secretary of state to find election fraud. Several pundits and other reporters used this story as definitive proof Trump had committed a crime. Then magically, a recording of the call released months later contradicted the source quoted in the Post.

So why does this keep happening? More to the point, why does it only seem to happen when the targets of the stories are on the right side of the political aisle? As far as Trump and the media goes, the answer seems pretty obvious. But there is a larger problem at work here: the fundamental leaning on anonymous sources who burn journalists. Many of these sources come from within an intelligence apparatus that is not shy about its contempt for Trump or his past administration. When major outlets make repeated and biased mistakes, readers and viewers find it harder to ascertain what is fact from fiction. If you’re a reporter who doesn’t like being called ‘fake news’, you’ve got to be mad at people in your industry who rush out thinly sourced stories and frequently give your detractors grounds to use that term. Yet messing up stories in this fashion looks like more a feature than a bug with many mainstream news organizations, while also turning people like Rudy Giuliani, a man who clearly has not playing with a full deck for some time, into a martyr for the right and for the MAGAsphere.

The fact that the same error keeps being repeated also reveals an enormous and problematic confirmation bias on behalf of corporate media and their journalists. They believe something is good, so they ignore that it might be too good to be true, or to verify. Oftentimes they are on deadline against other outlets, which means they prioritize being first, instead of thorough and correct. Dean Baquet confirmed as much in a statement from the New York Times on the Giuliani story. The thinking from the press is: we don’t like Giuliani, therefore Giuliani must be guilty, therefore our sources telling us bad things about him must be honest.

As we’ve learned time and time again, these sources can rarely, if ever be trusted; in turn, we’ve become acclimated to the simple fact that journalists and the reputations of their once esteemed newspapers and networks, can no longer be trusted either.

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