Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Truman and other embarrassing mistakes
Every time there's a neck-and-neck election, someone trots out the famous photo of President Harry Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune that erroneously declared his defeat at the hands of Thomas Dewey. More than a repudiation of the pundits and pollsters who nearly all predicted electoral doom for the pugnacious president, it's one of the most enduring symbols of a major media outlet getting a big story horribly wrong. A lack of technology was partly to blame for the mistake: at that time, the paper had to be put to bed early for the first editions to get out in time, and editors at the Tribune (and other newspapers) relied on their best guesses and poll numbers to predict the election result.
Such mistakes still happen in the digital age, and this afternoon's example (when Canwest mistakenly reported the death of singer-songwriter and Canadian icon Gordon Lightfoot) is only the most recent. (For a good laugh, google the screenshots from CNN's website on April 16, 2003, when the broadcaster accidentally published dummy obituaries for several famous people, identifying Dick Cheney as the "UK's favourite grandmother" and Fidel Castro as a movie star). A lot of writers will probably take this chance to opine about how this wouldn't have happened in the old days and how digital media has degraded the quality of reporting. They're wrong.While the Internet, and particularly sites like Twitter, have allowed rumours to spread instantaneously, they have also allowed them to be corrected within minutes. Not long after the web filled with chatter about Lightfoot's death, the musician himself heard about it and called CP24 to let everyone know he was still alive. When Mayor David Miller waded into the fray by mistakenly tweeting that the Star and the Sun were to blame for the false reports, his readers immediately let him know that he was wrong.
In the old days, by comparison, it took hours, days, even years to set the record straight. In 1899, when four unscrupulous newspaper reporters in Denver fabricated a story about the Great Wall of China being busted down and sold for scrap, newspapers around the world picked it up for months afterwords. Lacking the resources to check if the story was true, many of them never corrected themselves. In 1948, when the Tribune declared Truman's electoral defeat, it took several hours, when the next edition was printed, for the paper to fix the story.
The old rules -- double-checking your stories, making sure your sources are reliable, getting all the facts straight -- apply as much now as they ever did. But as much as technology makes it easy for a false report to circulate quickly, it makes it even easier for readers (or Gordon Lightfoot) to set the record straight. And that's a good thing.
Adrian Morrow is a veteran of the Star's radio room. He also worked as a summer reporter last year. firstname.lastname@example.org