Archive for the ‘San Francisco’ Tag

The case of the New York Times’ terror error

As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, it isn’t hard to recall the politically fraught case of the 20-year-old bearded kid captured by US soldiers in Afghanistan in late 2001. But think the media got the whole story right on the so-called American Taliban?

Think again: Nearly a decade later, a rather extraordinary meltdown occurred during a recent San Francisco radio show focused on the case of John Walker Lindh. It happened thanks to 14 erroneous words printed in the New York Times in July 2002. My MediaBugs partner Scott Rosenberg and I just published a long piece in The Atlantic that traces the tale and explains its profound implications for news accuracy in the digital age. Here’s how it begins:

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It is hard to describe the interview that took place on KQED’s Forum show on May 25, 2011, as anything other than a train wreck.

Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh — father of John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” — had been invited on to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he’d just published about his son’s 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: “Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?”

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh’s 2002 guilty plea as “one count of providing services to a terrorist organization.” That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. The next day, KQED ran a half-hour Forum segment apologizing for the mess and picking over its own mistakes.

KQED’s on-air fiasco didn’t happen randomly or spontaneously. The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.

This is the story of how that error was made, why it mattered, why it hasn’t been properly corrected to this day — and what lessons it offers about how newsroom traditions of verification and correction must evolve in the digital age.

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Read the whole thing here in The Atlantic. We reexamined the complicated Lindh case and conducted interviews with Frank Lindh, reporters and editors at the New York Times and KQED, and experts on media accuracy to get to the bottom of what turned out to be a fascinating case study.

Bonus link: Apparently the New York Times is not the only major news outlet with a Lindh error lurking in its digital archive.

Vancouver’s bold war on drugs

For many years Vancouver has had a serious heroin addiction. So it’s heartening to see that one of the city’s boldest strategies for confronting the problem, launched eight years ago, is continuing to meet with serious success: Vancouver’s government-backed “supervised injection site” — the first of its kind in North America — has helped reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in the city by 35 percent, according to a new scientific report detailed in the Vancouver Sun.

The news is gratifying for me personally, having invested deeply in the issue with a reporting project I did for Salon beginning in 2003. (My initial story from Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside — a neighborhood much changed these days, particularly since the 2010 Winter Games — is linked above.) Reporting another piece in 2006, one of the most striking things I found was that early results from Insite, as it’s called, had already converted some hardcore conservatives. Then city councilor George Chow — who had campaigned vigorously against the injection site when running for office — told me in fall 2006 that conservatives’ ideological fears had been misguided. They had declared that a government-sponsored facility for helping drug users shoot up would only breed more chaos.

“After three years that has not happened, even with an increase in the homeless,” Chow told me then. “Without this facility the drug problem would have been far more out of control. There would be an even bigger problem with HIV transmission and other issues.”

As I wrote at the time, research showed that Insite had also helped sharply reduce the sharing of dirty needles among street addicts and increased their entry into detox and addiction treatment programs. Supporters of Insite believed that the facility’s success would prove a beachhead for a less punitive and more humane war on drugs extending across Canada, and perhaps even to drug-troubled cities south of the Canadian border. Chow himself suggested that Toronto and Montreal, as well as U.S. cities with similar problems, should consider the policy already working so effectively in his own neighborhood.

Now, he and Insite’s other supporters can point not only to a reduction in fatal overdoses but also to a rigorous research report making that same recommendation. The report was published Sunday, as the Vancouver Sun noted, in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet:

The report, compiled by Canadian scientists from the Urban Health Research Initiative, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and St. Paul’s Hospital, goes on to argue that Vancouver’s Insite — the country’s first safe-injection facility — should be replicated in other North American cities where drug use is a common problem. …

In a column accompanying the report, Dr. Chris Beyrer, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, commended the facility’s work in helping drug abusers. “Supervised injection facilities clearly have an important part to play in communities affected by drug use. They should be expanded to other affected sites in Canada, on the basis of the life-saving effects identified in Vancouver,” he wrote.

Maybe city leaders in Baltimore, San Francisco and New York City will finally take notice, too. For a deeper dive into Vancouver’s acute hard-drug crisis, and Insite’s role in helping contend with it, read this piece.

Hacking the Middle East

Simplistic pronouncements about the role of social media in stirring uprisings and toppling dictators have by now, thankfully, seemed to die down. That Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other digital tools have been important to the historic upheaval in the Middle East is an unimpeachable fact. And a closer look at how those tools played a part is more than just interesting — it may offer clues to major social and political movements of the future.

A gathering last week in San Francisco organized by Hacks/Hackers and HackDemocracy showcased some illuminating work on the subject. Stanford computer scientist Rio Akasaka shared an animation he made showing worldwide Twitter activity from Feb. 7 to 14 that used the hashtag #Egypt. Unsurprisingly, the United States and Europe figure most prominently in the dynamic constellation, but there was also a climactic surge across the Middle East, South Asia and South America as news spread on Feb. 11 that Hosni Mubarak no longer held power:

Each dot on the map, Akasaka said, represents a single tweet; at the peak of activity for #Egypt, he said, there were as many as 6,000 per minute.

After the Mubarak regime all but shut down the Internet in Egypt at the end of January, activists moved to work around the technological assault. Egyptians relied even more on mobile phones to connect to the outer world, said Ahmed Shihab-Eldin of Al Jazeera English, in some cases texting and emailing trusted contacts elsewhere in the Middle East or Europe who would disseminate the info via Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Meanwhile, Google and Twitter joined forces to launch speak2tweet, a service that helped Egyptian citizens keep information flowing online by way of voicemails.

Egyptian-born technology entrepreneur Amir Khella said that the R.N.N news hub on Facebook, which reportedly saw a veritable explosion of page views in late January, was the best “hack” he’d seen among any related to the revolution. The R.N.N page pulled together information via text messages, phone calls and emails from people witnessing various events on the ground. R.N.N would crosscheck multiple reports from the same approximate time and location, Khella said, in order to separate fact from rumor. (Who exactly is behind R.N.N remains unclear, he later told me.) It was a nimble kind of crowdsourcing born of the crisis.

No doubt there have been other useful applications of digital technology during this period of seismic change in the Middle East, and surely more will spring up in the months ahead. It’s also important not to overstate their role, and to examine how the Internet has been used nefariously by oppressive regimes.

Maybe in part it’s because the earlier proliferation of Facebook and Twitter in American culture was marked by some frivolity that writers such as Malcolm Gladwell haughtily dismissed them as a sideshow in the context of revolutions. (See Matthew Ingram for a sharp take on how Gladwell went astray.) But as the speakers last week in San Francisco reiterated, a great number of people in the Arab world are using them, and not primarily to muse about what they ate for lunch. Under pressure from the U.S. government, executives at Facebook and Twitter have made moves to keep their platforms viable for activists, and it’s doubtful that their motivations to do so were solely capitalistic.

“We realize that in order to be meaningful, online freedoms must carry over into real-world activism,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom. She later continued: “The dramatic increase in internet users during the past 10 years has been remarkable to witness. But that was just the opening act. In the next 20 years, nearly 5 billion people will join the network. It is those users who will decide the future.”

Hard to get a fix

Just about every professional journalist under the sun will tell you that accuracy and transparency in news reporting are essential to a media organization’s credibility. It would seem to follow, then, that most newsrooms would make tracking and correcting errors a priority — particularly in the digital age, in which they have unprecedented capability to interact with the public. But that’s not at all the case right now. Over at MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg and I have just published our first major report on the state of corrections practices across the Bay Area news media. What we found will not boost public confidence:

The results of MediaBugs’ first survey of Bay Area media correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined — including many of the region’s leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets — provide no corrections link on their websites’ home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.

Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site’s search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.

In the above report, you can see the specific rundown for most major news outlets headquartered in or regularly covering the Bay Area (including some major national outlets). We’re not just looking to highlight these problems; we also hope to encourage news organizations to fix them — and the good news here is that the necessary improvements are pretty easy to make. To that end, we’ve also published a companion piece outlining best practices in error reporting and corrections.

Also see Scott’s excellent post over at MediaShift Idea Lab for more insight into why news sites have stopped short in this realm — and where we think they should be headed, most ambitiously. (Nutshell: Adding a “Report an error” button as a standard feature on every news page online. The promotion of which is a project in our pipeline.)

And be sure to check out the fun little movie we just released (with the help of our talented friends at Beep Show) — the hard-hitting yet heart-warming story of MediaBugs, as told by men in shorts.

MediaBugs: Where you fix the news!

I’m excited to announce that we’ve opened the doors today to MediaBugs, a new project intended to help improve the quality of news coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you see an error or problem in a news report that you think needs to be corrected, please come on over and submit a bug report! From there, we’ll help start an open conversation between you and the journalist(s) behind the story, with the aim of getting the issue resolved.

For more about the thinking behind MediaBugs and how it works, check out this report from Mallary Jean Tenore today at Poynter Online. Craig Silverman (of “Regret the Error” fame and one of our project advisers) tells Tenore that “fact checking is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age.” If so, we should soon have plenty of fresh bug reports for the Bay Area public and media community to consider. As Tenore points out, research by Scott Maier, a journalism scholar from University of Oregon, shows that fewer than 2 percent of errors in daily newspapers ever get corrected. (And there are reams of errors, studies show, in newspapers and across all manner of news media.)

We also hope that journalists will benefit from MediaBugs. We’ve met with many of them around town over the last couple of months to introduce the project, and have been pleased to encounter lots of interest and positive response. Not only do we think MediaBugs offers newsrooms a handy new tool for tracking error reports, we also hope it will help them win greater confidence among their readerships. As Tenore suggests in her piece:

While running a correction might make journalists cringe, doing so can actually make them look good. Maier said public opinion research shows that the public tends to trust the media more when they see corrections being made. In that sense, correction-tracking software like MediaBugs, Maier and Silverman said, can help journalists gain credibility.

And that could only be a good thing, with said credibility having tanked of late.

For some great related reading, also see Silverman’s own recent piece for CJR, in which he notes that corrections aren’t just for journalists and news organizations anymore: “Anyone who generates content or shares information will inevitably encounter a moment when they have to correct a mistake. Thanks to the Internet, mobile devices and other technologies, more and more people are engaging in content creation—and the act of correction.”

UPDATED: More on the project launch from Megan Garber at Nieman Journalism Lab. Also, here’s where you can follow MediaBugs on Twitter.

UPDATED, 10/27/10: MediaBugs has gone national.

Tactile porn, Sarah Palin and a cool brown dwarf

Loyal readers: Until I can return to writing in this space more frequently, here below is another microblogging fix to bridge the gap. (Complete with shamelessly SEO’d headline.) At the moment I’m immersed in the launch of MediaBugs, working on a magazine profile of comic actor Amy Poehler and continuing research for a long-term project on Haida Gwaii. And running around quite a bit with our very active Vizsla pup, Renzo. (Did I mention—yikes!—also planning a wedding?) Meantime, if you have an appetite for more links beyond the below, follow the daily feed here.

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pornography for the blind: http://bit.ly/causwb about 3 hours ago
  
Sarah Palin is getting very rich http://bit.ly/aOwfJy about 3 hours ago

James Cameron, eco-warrior: http://j.mp/AvatLula Heartening, but does he have the political skills to be effective? http://nyti.ms/blKA2T about 21 hours ago

via St. Louis Post-Dispatch, revelations of J. Edgar Hoover’s media obsession http://bit.ly/b0hDBd about 23 hours ago

GOP prepping for war on Obama’s next Supreme Court nom? http://n.pr/dwdQP1 Of course they are—beware talk otherwise: http://wp.me/prtei-oG about 24 hours ago via web
  
it’s true, I’ve been wanting to say this for a while: Cool Brown Dwarf Found Lurking http://bit.ly/d37n6w 9:55 AM Apr 12th via web

#Treme off to a good start, music alone worth the price of admission. Fun to see Kermit Ruffins still going strong at Vaughn’s… 11:23 PM Apr 11th via web

sexual abuse scandal haunting the Pope reaches the Bay Area: http://bit.ly/cHFqGb 4:17 PM Apr 9th via web

Essential reading for media: @dangillmor on NYT getting in bed with Apple over iPad http://bit.ly/drT4eo 10:25 PM Apr 8th via TweetDeck
  
How John McCain is short-selling his soul! http://bit.ly/ciaTsy (watch the whole thing) 9:39 AM Apr 8th via web

Once again in California, looks like it could be a Chinese railroad http://s.nyt.com/u/cqo 6:17 PM Apr 7th via API
  
this is a great dog story: http://nyti.ms/bXEAyN 2:28 PM Apr 6th via web

Doguccino

A brief and irrelevant diversion: Yesterday afternoon when grabbing a shot of caffeine at Epicenter, I had no choice but to admire the barista’s foam styling skills — a doguccino unsolicited, but a fine one nevertheless, constructed simply using the tip of a beverage thermometer:


If doguccino doesn’t do it for you, perhaps Doga does.

Robert Redford and the art of activism

Robert Redford usually draws media attention for his annual Sundance Film Festival in snowy Park City, where despite the accumulation of Hollywood hype he continues to champion the art of filmmaking. Less often remarked is his other great passion: the art of activism. Recently, Redford decided to make the Bay Area a new hub for his continuing work as a defender of social justice and the environment. Given the legacy of progressive politics in this region, it seems a natural choice for his new Redford Center, located in the heart of downtown Berkeley.

Earlier this month, during the center’s inaugural event at the Sundance Kabuki Theater in San Francisco, Redford honored two accomplished community leaders. Victor Diaz, the principal of Berkeley Technology Academy, spoke with a quiet kind of ferocity about his efforts to help at-risk minority kids get a better shot at education. Also impressive was teenager Avery Hale, who at age 13 started a project to deliver shoes to impoverished children in villages in Latin America and beyond.

Redford and Diaz conversing onstage, Feb. 4, in San Francisco. (Photo by Peter Klueger.)

Redford spoke at length about the crossroads of grassroots activism and the arts. At 73, he’s been at it for four decades. He made clear that his bet is now on those many decades his junior, emphasizing the creative potential among youth and “the small acts that lead to big results.” In considering where progressive change can come from, he pulled no punches about the “cartoon behavior” going on at present in Washington: “There’s not a whole lot to be optimistic about today, politically. You see how constipated it is at the top and nothing is getting done — it’s an embarrassment to this country. We’ve lost so much already, we’re losing more by the day.”

Global warming continues to trouble him — as it did in 1987, when he first took it on, traveling to the Soviet Union during Perestroika for a conference on the then relatively unknown issue. He recounted inviting a high-powered Soviet delegation to Sundance for further talks, which eventually resulted in a joint document, in 1989, aimed at reducing pollution. In hindsight, it marked both a high point and a low point. “It was too early,” Redford said. “I made a terrible mistake: I was naïve to think that it was such a verifiable document, that all I had to do was send it in to [the first] George Bush and Gorbachev. It was, ‘Thank you very much’ and stuffed into a drawer, and no one ever really heard about it.”

But Redford’s stark views on national and global politics were tempered by a focus on inspiration and action at the local level — the raison d’etre of the Redford Center — and ultimately his message was a warmer one of rebirth. He pointed to the youngest generation, including his grandchildren in the audience. “They’re the ones that are about to inherit what’s left of this earth,” he said, “and I sense that this new generation of young people coming on really does want to do something. And I hope they will.”

Big bake sale for Cary Tennis and King Kaufman

Around the turn of the year, two friends and former colleagues of mine at Salon, Cary Tennis and King Kaufman, were hit with serious health emergencies. In November, Cary announced in his beloved advice column that he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, sacral chordoma, and would have to undergo surgery, which took place on December 17th. Vividly and eloquently, he has been keeping friends and fans apprised of his situation on his Open Salon blog.

In early January, King was suddenly taken ill and hospitalized for a rare, devastating ailment, Guillain-Barré syndrome, the cause of which is essentially unknown. Fortunately, after three weeks in the hospital and a physical rehabilitation center, he is now back home with his wife and young kids, on his way to what his doctors say is likely to be a full recovery.

For most people nowadays, a serious health crisis inevitably brings with it some financial strain. Friends of Cary and King have rallied to put together a terrific auction on eBay, the proceeds of which will go toward supporting these two great guys through their difficult times. A throng of talented and accomplished Salon alumni have contributed: Dave Eggers, Zach Trenholm, Heather Havrilesky, Keith Knight, David Talbot, Scott Rosenberg, Kate Moses, Larry Smith and Laura Miller, to name a few. The array of items up for bid include signed first editions of books, photographs, paintings and other original artwork. More details about the project on this Web site set up by the talented and generous Mignon Khargie.

The auction begins on Tuesday, February 9, and runs through the rest of the week; please check it out here and bid on any of this great stuff in support of Cary and King.

Helping fix the error-filled news

I’m very happy to announce my involvement in a new startup called MediaBugs, where I’ll be serving as associate director and community manager. I’m joining with project founder and director Scott Rosenberg (with whom I had the great pleasure of working during my years at Salon) for what we anticipate will be an exciting and, hopefully, groundbreaking effort. We are now in the process of building out our Web site, with plans to start rolling out the service in early 2010. The two-year project is funded by the Knight Foundation, and will focus on all manner of media in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In a nutshell, MediaBugs will provide a neutral, civil forum where the public can report errors they encounter in the news and try to get them fixed. The idea is to leverage the open-source power of the Web to achieve greater transparency and dialogue among media institutions and the public, and thereby improve the quality of the news.

1948_DeweyDefeatsTruman

We see it as a winning proposition for everyone involved — a way to begin rebuilding public confidence in the media, while offering our fellow journalists a compelling tool they can use to enhance their work in this ever-dynamic digital age.

Why focus on fixing errors in the news? For one, public trust in the media wallows at a historic low. As Scott explained in a recent blog post, there are several reasons for this — perhaps chief among them that the news is riddled with mistakes, and an extraordinary percentage of them go uncorrected.

There are different kinds of errors, but even the seemingly trivial ones matter. (And there are a great many of them, as detailed at the above links, a status quo surely not helped by today’s painful editorial cutbacks.) If the local paper or news site regularly publishes misspelled names or inaccurate dates, how can its readers trust that it got the really important stuff right?

The problem afflicts small and big players alike. This week, the Washington Post’s public editor Andrew Alexander was compelled to explain why a respected sports columnist at the paper whiffed big time with some of his World Series coverage.

“By my count,” Alexander wrote, “the column contained at least 20 typos, grammatical errors or misspellings.”

Curiously, the Post treated a cleaned-up version of the piece, posted online after the shoddy print version went out, as separate. That’s a questionable distinction, with the lines between blog posts, columns and articles rapidly blurring these days, and with digital and print newsroom operations fast merging. There is still no correction appended to the online version of the World Series column, so unless you’d already caught wind of Alexander’s write-up you wouldn’t even know about the flurry of mistakes that appeared in print. Doesn’t seem like the best way to win over skeptical readers.

For more details on how MediaBugs will work, visit our site here, and stay tuned for more soon.

Bay Bridge boondoggle

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has been “closed indefinitely” after a rod installed during last month’s emergency repairs snapped during rush hour on Tuesday evening, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m extra thankful this morning that in 15 years of living and working in this city I’ve been able to commute almost exclusively by public transportation or bicycle. Compared with the 280,000 daily car commuters suffering today’s fallout (not to mention all the train riders getting further jammed in by them), that probably makes it too easy for me to say this: There are at least a couple of reasons to be thankful (relatively speaking) for this latest meltdown.

First, it’s a live exercise in what could happen when the most important transportation artery in the region gets knocked out under more perilous circumstances — a terrorist attack, another catastrophic earthquake, etc. Nobody can say there wasn’t an opportunity to prepare. Second, it again puts a glaring light on key questions about the boondoggle that is the new eastern span of the bridge — namely, why is it billions of dollars over budget, beset with quality-control problems and years behind schedule?

Bay Bridge

Aerial view of an empty Bay Bridge on Wednesday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

It’s an understatement to say that the project has long been ripe for serious journalistic investigation. If the beleaguered Chronicle can’t get it together, perhaps others will rise to the task. According to Baynewser, an interesting collaboration is underway from SF Public Press and McSweeney’s. “Our reporters have been digging up documents for close to two months on the massive construction project, one of the most challenging, costly and complex bridge projects in U.S. history, and have found some surprising new facts about how and why the costs, currently projected at $6.3 billion, continue to rise,” says Public Press chief Michael Stoll. With this latest setback, perhaps the new Berkeley-based California Watch will get interested as well.

“Preparing for a tough day with Bay Bridge closure,” tweeted Mayor Gavin Newsom this morning. He recommended following @BayBridgeInfo to stay informed. As of about 6:30am, the prognosis there was not good: “Repairs are now under way, still unknown how long repairs will take or when bridge will reopen.”

UPDATE: Given the rapidly changing media landscape here, how did initial coverage of the Bay Bridge crisis flow?

Dave Eggers, Peter Orner and more

I’m at work on a couple of freelance projects that will soon take me back to the great northwest. More bits here in a couple of days; in the meantime, I must recommend a visit to The Rumpus, a great online culture mag launched a few months back in San Francisco.

rumpus_header

It’s got entertaining and informative and sexy stuff of all sorts. (Disclosure: A few of my posts have also been published there.) Editor Stephen Elliott recently interviewed Dave Eggers, who has a forthcoming nonfiction book, “Zeitoun,” about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as seen through the eyes of a Muslim-American family in New Orleans. I was struck by Eggers’ comments about his collaborative (and exhaustive) approach to the project:

With a book like this, I think you get the most accuracy when you involve your subjects as much as possible. I think I sent the manuscript to the Zeitouns for six or seven reads. They caught little inaccuracies each time. They have to live with the book, of course, as much as I do, so I needed their approval. With What Is the What and with this book, I consider the book as much theirs as mine. So they were intimately involved in every step, as were their extended families. We had many months to get everyone’s approval over everything, to make sure it was accurate.

Eggers recommends an edition of the Quran to read, discusses why he’s optimistic about print in the digital age (“Do we all want to look at screens from 8am to 10pm? There’s room in the world for both online and paper”) and describes some intriguing plans for McSweeney’s to put out a newspaper.

thelonelyvoiceAbsolutely also check out Peter Orner’s new column, “The Lonely Voice.” His appreciative ruminations on the art of the short story are as engaging and illuminating as any literary writing you’ll find online. (Or in print, for that matter.) Not to be missed.

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