by David Kopel
Nov. 22, 2003
Twenty-three percent of newspaper readers say they find factual errors at least once a week in their daily papers, according to a study from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. As for the other 77 percent, they're not looking hard enough.
Here's a roundup of some recent errors in the Denver dailies.
• In a column on the homeless, The Denver Post'sCindy Rodriguez (Nov. 7) quoted an advocate who said that there were 10,000 homeless people in Denver. He asked "You mean to tell me" that Denver citizens "can't give enough so they have a place to sleep?" Rodriguez paraphrased the advocate's claim that he knows many homeless people, and "he can't think of a single person who really wants to sleep outside."
But despite what the Rodriguez column suggested, there are not 10,000 people sleeping outside in Denver. As Mike Rosen detailed in his column the same day in the Rocky Mountain News, two-thirds of people counted as "homeless" by Denver statisticians are living with a friend or relative, or in transitional housing, or in a motel. Of the rest, most are in shelters, or other facilities such as mental health centers. Just 10 percent of the so-called "10,000 homeless" in Denver are actually sleeping outside.
• Metropolitan State College recently fired an associate dean in order to save money. Both the Newsand the Postdevoted much of their stories to the controversy over the associate dean's 2001 criticism of judging public school teacher effectiveness based on how the teacher's students perform on the CSAP test.
In a Nov. 11 story, the Post reported that the associate dean "could not be reached for comment," and the Postheadlined "Metro States fires outspoken educator" - implying that she may have been fired because she was outspoken.
A story the next day by the Newsshowed why it's sometimes better to hold an article until the reporter can get the full story. The Newstalked to the associate dean, who said, "I don't think it had anything to do with me being outspoken." Readers who saw only the Post'spremature story would get a false impression that Metro State was infringing on academic freedom.
• The syndicated column of Cokie and Steven Roberts which runs in the Newsis nearly always a perfect reflection of moderate liberal opinion in Washington. But although Cokie Roberts touts her "four decades" of experience in Washington, she is not always accurate in remembering some things that happened when she was there.
According to the Roberts' column of Nov. 15, the U.S. Supreme Court "under Chief Justice Earl Warren" issued "a series of contentious rulings" including one which "legalized abortion."
The only problem with the Roberts story is that Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, was decided in 1973, when the chief justice was Warren Burger.
The Robertses note the Supreme Court's history of controversy, such as "upholding segregation in the 1850s." Actually, there was nothing illegal about segregation in the 1850s, and hence there were no Supreme Court cases "upholding" segregation. They were attempting to reference the Dred Scott case from 1856, which held that free blacks were not citizens, and the Congress could not ban slavery in the territories.
• Letters to the Editor can say things that might be too outrageous for a newspaper staffer, but the letters section shouldn't be used to disseminate falsehoods. The Post(Nov. 11) printed a letter claiming that the new federal ban on partial-birth abortion has no exception if the mother's life is in danger. Not so.
The new law is codified in Section 1531 of Title 18 of the United States Code. The second sentence of the statute says, "This subsection does not apply to a partial-birth abortion that is necessary to save the life of the mother" if her life is endangered by physical disorders or injuries, or by the pregnancy itself.
• A Nov. 11 Postarticle about a Denver photography exhibit stated: "The United Nations estimates that the vast majority of those affected by war are women and children." The U.N. has indeed made this "estimate," but it's false, and therefore shouldn't be printed in a newspaper.
The Small Arms Survey is a research project at Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva ( http://heiwww.unige.ch ). The survey produces data that assist the global disarmament campaign.
Yet the Small Arms Survey 2002 yearbook pointed to assertions that most war victims are women and children as an example of how "The relief and development communities frequently generate inaccurate and inflated numbers, whether out of ignorance or intentionally, to justify programmatic interventions and to mobilize public opinion."
It's a rare newspaper editor who has heard of the Small Arms Survey, or who knows much about international statistical research on war casualties. So the Postmight be considered a victim rather than a perpetrator of the bogus U.N. factoid.
But the other factual errors mentioned above would not have been terribly difficult to doublecheck before printing.