Friday, March 23, 2012

Media mistake milestone: "This American Life" retracts a story on Apple

A milestone in the history of the media occurred last week. Ira Glass' radio program "This American Life" retracted an entire episode it had produced regarding Apple's supplier Foxconn and the working conditions in its factories in China. The episode in question relied heavily on the first-person account of Mike Daisey (creator of the monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," an excerpt of which provided much of the material for the program). Glass and his team discovered, thanks to reporting from Marketplace's Rob Schmitz, that a number of the incidents Daisey presented as factual were fabricated.

The retraction itself wasn't the milestone. This was: rather than simply announce the error, apologize and move on, This American Life produced an entire new episode dedicated to the retraction, investigating the process that led them to make these errors and, finally, presenting what is actually known about Apple and Foxconn, in an effort to imprint the true story instead of the fabricated. Such an open investigation and discussion of a significant mistake is unprecedented, in my experience.

Some highlights:

1) The admission:

[Ira Glass:] At the time that we were fact-checking his story, we asked Mike for the contact information for the interpreter that he used when he was visiting China, who he calls Cathy in his monologue. We wanted to talk to her to confirm that the incidents that he described all happened as he describes them. And when we asked for her information, he told us, well, her real name wasn't Cathy. It was Anna.

And he had a cell phone number for her, but he said that when he tried the number these days, it doesn't work anymore. He said he had no way to reach her. And because the other things that Mike told us about Apple and about Foxconn seemed to check out, we saw no reason to doubt him, and we dropped this. We didn't try further to reach the translator. That was a mistake.

I can say now in retrospect that when Mike Daisey wouldn't give us contact information for his interpreter, we should have killed the story rather than run it. We never should have broadcast this story without talking to that woman.

2) On how the mistake impacted the show and public radio:

I should say I am not happy to have to come to you and tell you that something that we presented on the radio as factual is not factual. All of us in public radio stand together. And I have friends and colleagues on lots of other shows who, like us here at This American Life, work hard to do accurate, independent reporting week in, week out. I and my co-workers here at This American Life, we are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.

Papers like the New York Times regularly print corrections and retractions, but never (even in the case of an Editor's Note, the highest-profile correction the Times makes) does it feature the correction equal to the original. On the web page, corrections are signaled at the top of the page and then detailed below the piece.

News organizations have run juicy stories that later turned out to be fabricated since the very beginning. In the future, let's hope more organizations are as open and self-critical as This American Life was in this case.

Some other notable media fabrications:

Janet Cooke, Washington Post, 1981. (Cooke's story, "Jimmy's World," is here.)
Jayson Blair, New York Times, 2003

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