The first correction appears benign at first, as all it does is clarify the anatomy of a fictional character in Nintendo’s “Mario” universe:
This correction, however, reveals a much darker story, much like when the co-ed in the horror film notices that the lights in the house won’t work and the floor is suddenly wet. (Yes, the killer cut the power and you’re standing in a pool of Troy’s blood, Buffy. Run, dammit!)
In this case, it was an excerpt from Stormy Daniels’ new book, in which she described her sexual encounter with President Donald Trump:
“I lay there,” she wrote, “annoyed that I was getting (EXPLETIVE DELETED) by a guy with Yeti pubes and a dick like the mushroom character in Mario Kart.”
Daniels was likely referring to Toad, the mushroom-headed character from Nintendo’s Mario series.
As the headline of the original article suggests, you may want to wash your eyes out with bleach. You also might have a difficult time ever playing “Mario Kart” again.
The second correction was as horrific as the first, but for a completely different reason. Christine Ford came forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were both teenagers. Ford first provided her story anonymously, but more recently made her name public in regard to this situation.
The question of “Who is Christine Ford?” became fodder for many news outlets and websites, each of which attempted to gain an edge in giving readers something out of the ordinary about her. The website Grabien, which touts itself as providing “powerful tools for the next era of news” dug deep into Ford’s teaching background to reveal that students apparently really hated Ford:
Brett Kavanaugh’s formerly anonymous accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, has come forward. She’s a professor in the Social Work Department at California State University-Fullerton. Many interested in learning more about who Ford is have come across her students’ reviews on RateMyProfessor.com.
They’re… not good.
Something else isn’t good here, namely the research the reporter on this story conducted. For starters, Ford is professionally known as Christine Blasey, not Christine Ford, as was the name listed on the RMP board associated with this story. Second, she doesn’t teach at Cal State Fullerton, but rather she holds an appointment at Palo Alto University while also serving as a member of a consortium at Stanford. Third, she’s a professor and researcher in the field of clinical psychology, not social work. Fourth, the correction that the publication ran pretty much makes all of this look a lot worse than the previous three points:
Editor’s Note: We apologize for the error, but we’ve since learned there are two Christine Fords working in clinical psychology in California and we wrote this report about the wrong Christine Ford. We regret not going to greater lengths to ensure this was indeed the same Christine Ford. Please do not share this article with anyone (and if you have, delete it/withdraw it); we are only leaving the page up so you can see this important update.
In other words, we just ended up accusing the woman who plans to testify against a potential Supreme Court justice of being incompetent, unusually cruel to students and mentally unstable based on a set of anonymous student accusations against the WRONG PERSON. Um… Whooops?
Here are a few takeaways from these corrections, in no particular order:
Not every source is equally valid: We used to post signs around the newsroom that “Wiki-ANYTHING is not a source.” The rationale at the time (and probably still now) was that if anyone can provide content without being forced to demonstrate expertise or adhere to a certain level of professionalism, how could we rely on the material as being factual? Case in point, here is a screen shot of information about Cape Town’s highest point, according to Wikipedia a few years back:
In the case of Grabien, it pitches itself as being at the forefront of the new era of news, but if you look into its “About Us” page, it is basically a loosely controlled flea market for news:
Grabien content is generated from a decentralized network of contributors. To ensure the highest editorial standards are met, Grabien staffers only permit content that comports to the site’s rules and style guide.
Whenever clips are purchased, the uploader receives a commission, up to 50 percent of that sale. Users receive 500 free coins upon creating an account to get accustomed to the site; these “promo” coins do not credit the uploaders’ accounts.
Much like other sites that run a cash-for-clicks approach, the more sensational the story, the more clicks you get. Also, it’s unclear what the overall vetting process is for the people submitting content or the stories themselves. I would ask the writer of this story what he or she went through in terms of an edit, but the piece contains no byline that I can find.
Also, this concept applies to the RateMyProfessors.com site, in that there is no actual vetting of what students have to say. Professors can file a protest if they feel a student is out of control or has actually engaged in libel (e.g. “Prof. Filak stabbed a student to death in front of my J-101 class just to watch him die.”), but for the most part these things go unchallenged. Here’s one of mine:
I have no idea what the heck this person was talking about regarding papers due the “VERY NEXT DAY,” although the use of all caps there makes it clear he or she is serious. I do agree that I’m not cool. The rest? Meh… I’m also not sure about what makes for a positive review, in that people for a while were getting great reviews for having no homework or letting students go early. Also, how much faith do you want to place in an academic website rating system that included the chili-pepper emoji to rate the “hotness” of your professor? Of all the things I never got in life, I was never more grateful to be without a pepper. Just… eeeew…
People actively involved in a topic take it seriously: In the first edition of the media writing book, I interviewed Meghan Plummer, who worked at the Experimental Aircraft Association as a publications editor. She told me that being careful with facts and details was of the utmost importance in her area because so many of her readers were passionate airplane enthusiasts for whom details mattered. Thus, if you had the wrong top speed of a plane or the horsepower of an engine, people were upset. Even when people agree on things like what sailplanes and gliders are, there’s still argumentation over distinction.
The Toad situation initially had me pondering if people were arguing over the concept of a tree while ignoring the fact they were in a forest (a giant, flaming horrifying forest, at that). However, for the fans of Nintendo who were inadvertently dragged into this horrible description, the argumentation of “hat vs. head” went deep into the night as they cited sources and debated the true “canon” of Toad. It might seem stupid and beside the point to you, but it matters to your readers, which means it REALLY should matter to you.
Every person has a distinction that matters to him or her. You might find it acceptable to refer to military personnel as “soldiers,” but you would have some serious arguments from people in the Marines, Air Force and Navy. You might think it’s fine to say someone lives in “Chicago,” but my wife is going to debate the hell out of that if the person lives in a suburb like Wilmette. I will debate for hours with anyone the idea that “Rio Bravo” is a Western, in that it’s a Howard Hawkes film that has additional elements that surpass the simple “Western” genre.
Long story short, pay attention to the details because your readers will.
Fact-check the heck out of everything, especially stories that have real risks: As amped up as people got about the “hat vs. head” argument in the Trump story, nothing bad really happened to Toad as a result of this. He’s not losing money because he’s now shunned from the “Mario Kart” franchise or devastated by the news that “it’s not a hat!”
Ford, on the other hand, has some serious ground for declaring defamation and demonstrating negative consequences. (I’m not getting into the “would she win?” argument here because a) I’m not a lawyer, b) there’s that whole “public/private actual malice/negligence” issue and c) that’s not the point I’m making here.) Someone with the same name got some really lousy reviews and had her mental state questioned. Suddenly, that’s a knock on Ford as she goes into the crucible of public dissection of her life because a reporter did a “RateMyProfessors.com” search and figured, “What are the odds that two people with the same name would ever teach in this tiny hamlet known as California? Let’s run this sucker!”
The information available about both of these women made it almost painfully clear that they weren’t the same person: wrong field, wrong college, wrong professional name… And yet, this story still found its way into the public.
A good rule of thumb is if your story runs the risk of defaming someone, put a little more fact checking effort than the average blowhard spinning tales at the bar after his fifth brandy old fashioned.