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losing faith in journalists – and those poor sicilians

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!

Filed in Science

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Xris (Chris Kreussling) February 21, 2007, 8:52 am

    AP needs spell-checker-checkers.

    And it's interesting to see how little "poor journalism" gets tagged in Technorati.

  • Jenn February 22, 2007, 1:38 am

    That gave me a laugh. :-)

    This is my favorite example (I hope you don't mind me linking), about the dangers of the invasive zebra muscle. Hee. I emailed the writer and he said the mistake must have happened after he submitted the article. As of today that uncorrected version is still online!

  • Patrick February 22, 2007, 11:19 am

    Being Sicilian, I can confirm that I can be a bit worm-like sometimes. :)

    This reminds me of Jay Leno's "Headlines". I love those.

    The proliferation of Anna Nicole Smith-related journalism in this country is a testament to the state of our news infrastructure.

  • John February 22, 2007, 1:08 pm

    Now that I have read this, I can go back to reading about the Caecilian Vespers.

  • Aydin February 22, 2007, 6:16 pm

    You listed most of the reasons why I stopped reading newspapers about 10 years ago. May they all shut their doors in the near future.

  • Eric B. February 24, 2007, 1:18 pm

    It could be that the reporter had the right name, and that it was an inadvertent spell check error.

  • Nuthatch February 24, 2007, 1:28 pm

    I hadn't thought of that, but tried it in Word and Wordperfect, and got no similar suggestions in spell check.