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Making mistakes is part of journalism. In the rush to get stories online, something can be misheard, misspelled, misinterpreted and then missed by editors. As American journalist and media analyst Jack Shafer put it a few years ago: “Journalists don’t need to dip into a box labelled ‘Half-truths and Innuendo’ to make mistakes: Screwing up has been integral to the reporting of timely news for a long time, no matter how sterling a news organization’s standards…”
Perhaps the emergence of machine-learning and AI-supported journalism, will eliminate much of this. But until an AI anchor is presenting your evening news bulletin and a machine is writing news agency wires, and we see what level of accuracy that entails we are stuck with the error-prone system we have.
The issues that are of importance in the meantime are why mistakes are made and whether/how they are corrected. The answers to these two questions tell us a lot about the state of a specific outlet or the standards of journalism more broadly.
A case in point is the way in which an interview given by Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos to CNBC was treated by some of the local media. The discussion had a number of interesting elements, some of which were ripe for political debate, such as Tsakalotos admitting that the 3.5 percent of GDP primary surplus target that his government has agreed with Greece’s creditors is too high.
However, soon after the interview aired on Thursday stories started appearing on Greek news websites that Tsakalotos had suggested it was “likely” that New Democracy would win the next election. Many outlets made this their top story. No doubt, the finance minister of any country saying that his party would lose the elections due in a few months is big news anywhere in the world. So, the local media was correct to lead with this story. There was only one problem: Tsakalotos never said such a thing.
In fact, the video of the interview and the transcript of the conversation between the finance minister and CNBC reporter Silvia Amaro clearly shows that when asked about the hypothetical scenario of New Democracy winning the next election, he distanced himself from such a possibility: “I don't think it's very likely they will be in power but in the unlikely and unfortunate eventuality that they are in power of course,” he responded.
Naturally, Tsakalotos’s view on the outcome of the next election must be taken with a pinch of salt, especially as SYRIZA trails New Democracy by some distance. As a politician, he is unlikely to offer an unbiased view on his party’s prospects. He would say it is unlikely the opposition will win, wouldn’t he?
But this is exactly why it would be some scoop to get him to admit that SYRIZA does not have much of a chance of winning the elections, which are due to be held by October, although many expect them to be in May. So, when the story started appearing online in Greece, one site after the other snapped it up, including the country’s largest and established outlets.
Once the news had spread, New Democracy issued a statement based on this false interpretation of what Tsakalotos said, “thanking” him for recognising that the conservatives will win the general elections. The media then started writing up New Democracy’s reaction and the circle was completed.
The interesting thing here is that even if we accept an innocent mistake, such as a journalist mishearing the quote, was made by the first website that published the news of Tsakalotos saying a New Democracy win is “likely,” the fact it was picked up unquestioningly by so many other outlets, and then by the opposition party, indicates a complete breakdown of the system.
It suggests that at no stage did those involved wonder whether it was really possible that the finance minister admitted to an international network in an interview, not in off-the-cuff off-camera remarks, that his party is on course for an election defeat. Also, during the process of the story being reproduced across the Greek internet (it was also picked up by the broadcast media) few seem to have wondered why Tsakalotos would say in the same breath that it is “likely” New Democracy would win the next elections and that it would be an “unlikely and unfortunate eventuality” (the second part of his answer was correctly translated by the Greek media).
Tsakalotos is known for mangling his Greek and has caused confusion with his comments in the past. His English, though, is usually very sharp. But even if this was a case of unclear audio or expression, anyone who wanted to verify what was said could have checked with CNBC. The transcript was available on the same morning the interview aired.
Yet, it appears that few, including New Democracy, thought (or wanted) to double-check what was said. Perhaps it was a case of selective hearing. Certainly, though, for a story of such potential significance it was a case of professional standards being abandoned.
This was also evident in the way that most of the same outlets reacted to the realisation that Tsakalotos had been misquoted by them. Some did not take down or adjust the story at all, others left it up for hours, some adjusted the title and the leading paragraphs, while one even suggested that the finance minister’s garbled words had been to blame but none of them published a clear correction. There was hardly any transparency. Few in the media held their hands up and admitted a mistake had been made, although New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis admitted in a roundabout way that his party had been misled.
One way of looking at this might be to suggest that a political purpose had been served (the impression was given that a senior member of the government believes its days in office are numbered) and that in this respect the media, much of which is closely aligned with political parties in Greece, achieved its goal.
Even if we rule out the possibility that there was intentional foul play, the weaselly way in which much of the media reacted to such an obvious error suggests that, at the very least, there is little regard for the reader/viewer/listener. As mentioned at the start, errors are part of the profession – even the most powerful and experienced news outlets and agencies have had to make embarrassing corrections or apologies after getting things wrong or being misled.
However, admitting the mistake and clearly correcting it is also part of the job. It is designed to foster transparency and, in turn, trust with the readership/audience. In failing to acknowledge their error on Thursday, certain Greek outlets suggested that they have little concern about accuracy and accountability and that their interests lie elsewhere.
For anyone who has knowledge of the Greek media landscape, this will not come as a surprise. Last year’s annual Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute, which surveys 37 countries around the world, indicated that 44 percent of Greeks said they had been exposed to a news story which was completely made up, just below the leader in this category – Turkey. Just 26 percent of Greeks expressed trust in all news sources, the second lowest among surveyed countries.
An industry that employs a lot of talented, hard-working people performing to a high level under difficult conditions is being let down by systemic failure. The discussion about what is causing this is a whole different debate but what the incident with Tsakalotos’s interview highlighted is that at the very least, the media is failing to carry out its basic functions properly. Before we talk about fake news, we should accept that we are already suffering from a serious case of bad news.