Three Papers Print Decade-Old ‘News’ Item

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By: Greg Mitchell

One of E&P’s favorite Web sites is Regret the Error, which chronicles newspaper corrections — something we can do only on an occasional basis.

E&P has profiled its creator, Craig Silverman, and links to the site (www.regrettheerror.com) sometimes. Today, Silverman carries an unusually lengthy report on a very old item that came back into circulation and ended up as “news” report in at least three widely scattered newspapers.

We reprint much of Silverman’s story below.

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When we came across this Toronto Star editorial (found via Fark) it made our day:

“Moon God Drinking Products Co., a skin care company in China, has offered a bounty of 1,000 yuan ($144) for every typographical or literary error found in a day’s editions of four Chinese publications in an attempt to embarrass journalists into better writing. Hao Mingjian, who came up with the idea for the bounty, said that ‘China’s press has lost its polish in the past decade or two,’ which ‘reflects a chaotic cultural environment and shows people lack a sense of responsibility.’ We applaud Hao’s initiative, but we have learned over our years at the Star that it is impossible to embarrass journalists. Public humiliation is our stock in trade….”

We liked it so much that we tried to track down the original story. That led us to This is True, which recently had the item up on its website, though it wasn’t on the home page anymore. We also saw that two other publications had used the item. The Wisconsin State Journal ran it and credited This is True. The Rocky Mountain News published it and credited Reuters. We searched in Factiva for the original Reuters story. Nothing showed up in the past year. We searched the Reuters site and also came up empty-handed.

So we e-mailed Randy Cassingham, the man behind the This is True empire. He told us that he had recently been ill and that caused him to pull together some of his favorite strange-but-true items from 10 years earlier for the December 5 edition of his weekly newsletter. (Producing an all-new version would have been too difficult.) Cassingham told his readers that all the items were old favorites. Included was this item from July 9, 1995:

“Moon God Drinking Products Co., a skin care company in China, has offered a bounty of 1,000 yuan (US$120) for every typographical or literary error found in a day?s editions of four Chinese publications in an attempt to embarrass journalists into better writing. Hao Mingjian, who came up with the idea for the bounty, said that ‘China?s press has lost its polish in the past decade or two,’ which ‘reflects a chaotic cultural environment and shows people lack a sense of responsibility.’ (Reuter)… Nice try, but journalists can’t be embarrassed.”

So the Star and the News and the Journal all poached an item more than a decade old, failed to verify it, and reported it as new news. As Cassingham noted in an email to us after we directed him to the Star editorial, it appears that the Star even chose to crib and slightly alter Cassingham’s line that “journalists can’t be embarrassed.” Not to mention the fact that the paper used his item pretty much verbatim.

“Note they even stole my tagline for the story — my comment on the story that’s my stock in trade as a news commentary columnist — and published it as their own,” he told us via email. “That’s the very definition of plagiarism, isn’t it?”

The irony of this — a very large media mistake in a story about media mistakes — is rich. But Cassingham has every right to be upset. All three papers failed their readers by not checking the wire to verify the story. But the Star’s infractions are by far the worst. The paper lifted the item and failed to credit any source. Then it plagiarized.

“It’s patently obvious where they got this story,” said Cassingham. “That they didn’t check their Reuters wires for corroboration is shocking — it’s no wonder that there is scandal after scandal of embarrassing plagiarism, made-up stories, and other malfeasance by newspapers these days.”

Let’s see what kind of correction or apology is offered by the newspapers. In the Star’s case, it better be substantial….

And we found the original Reuters report (though it was “Reuter” back then). It hit the wire on June 26, 1995 and was picked up in the Baltimore Evening Sun, USA Today and the Chicago Sun-Times.

***

SHANGHAI, June 26 (Reuter) — A Chinese skin care product company is offering cash prizes to readers who spot typographical and literary errors in Monday’s editions of three top Shanghai newspapers and a magazine.

Moon God Drinking Products Co will hand over 1,000 yuan ($120) for each mistake found in the Wen Hui daily, Liberation Daily, Xinmin Evening News and the magazine Pay Attention To Words, the newspapers reported on Monday.

As well as being a publicity stunt for the company, which makes a drink containing powdered pearls said to improve skin tone, the aim is to encourage journalists to brush up their prose.

“China’s press has lost its polish in the past decade or two,” said Hao Mingjian, deputy editor-in-chief of the Shanghai Culture and Art Publishing House, which came up with the idea for the competition. “It reflects a chaotic cultural environment and shows people lack a sense of responsibility.”

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