Many of you may have read the recent coverage of the effort to save amphibians from a fungal infection by creating safe captive populations. This news was also covered by mainstream media, and I saw this story in my local paper: “Scientists meet to stem frog deaths” by Dorie Turner of the Associated Press. In it, I read the following sentence.
“…prevent the disappearance of more than 6,000 species of frogs, salamanders and wormlike sicilians.”
That’s right. Sicilians. Who knew Italians needed to be saved along with amphibians? Perhaps those “wormlike” island-dwelling Italians are more susceptible to lethal fungi than those from Naples or Milan, for example.
Of course, the reporter meant caecilians, limbless tropical amphibians in the order Gymnophiona. I’m sure the reporter had no idea what a caecilian was, and she made absolutely no effort to find out. Neither did her editors, despite the fact this must have seemed odd or at least curious.
It’s just the latest in a long line of sloppy journalism that I see on a regular basis. Most lay people wouldn’t have caught this, just as I might not catch egregious errors on topics such as international banking or golf, which I know little about. Yet I believe in many newspapers, slipshod treatment of the facts is the rule rather than the exception.
This belief is based not only on mistakes I detect, but also on the many times I’ve been interviewed for newspapers and other media. Nearly every article has had errors, misquotations, or other inaccuracies, although I have been careful in what I say and always offer to review the piece prior to deadline. Exceptions are a few reporters I find reliable (usually columnists) and the time I was interviewed on NPR. Despite often ending up looking like a ninny who dispenses misinformation, I am in a position where I am required to continue to speak to the press.
Another thing that drives me nuts is the notion that every story has two (or more) sides, all of which get equal time. Every story does have multiple perspectives, of which there will generally always be two or more that are flaky, misguided, irrelevant, or just plain wrong. If the responsibility of the press is to inform the public about the truth, then giving equal time to marginal viewpoints, or any time to incorrect ones, is a violation of the standard of ethics for journalists regarding accuracy of information and reliability of sources.
It’s bad enough that poor, or at best uninspiring, writing is the norm in newspapers. To some extent, I at least get why that is — half of Americans read at the 8th grade level or lower. But there is no excuse for negligent and unmeticulous handling of facts.
Caecilian photo from the recommended website Livingunderworld.org; go learn about caecilians!