One of the things we’re trying to accomplish with MediaBugs is to encourage a change in newsroom culture. Journalists are still often reluctant to admit error, or even discuss the possibility of a mistake, for fear that it undermines their authority. But today a growing number of them understand that accuracy is best served, and authority best preserved, by being more open about the correction process.
That is the attitude we’ve encountered at most of the Bay Area news institutions where we’ve demoed MediaBugs. Unfortunately, it’s not what we found at Bloomberg when we tried to obtain a response on behalf of blogger Josh Nelson, who’d filed an error report at MediaBugs about a Bloomberg story.
Nelson raised a specific and credible criticism about the headline and lead on a Bloomberg report based on a national poll. Bloomberg’s coverage, Nelson argued, didn’t accurately reflect the actual question that its pollsters had asked about the Obama administration’s ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf. (The story and headline said that “Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama’s ban” on such drilling, but the poll asked about a general ban on all Gulf drilling, while Obama has placed a temporary hold on deepwater drilling.) Bloomberg, as we described recently, circled the wagons in response.
The news service, of course, has every right to “stand by its story.” But since Nelson has raised a reasonable question, Bloomberg’s public deserves a reasonable response. It would be useful for its readers — and its colleagues at publications like the San Francisco Chronicle, which reprinted the story — to hear from the editors why they disagree with Nelson. Apparently they believe their copy accurately reflects the poll they took, but they have yet to offer a substantive case explaining why.
Institutional behavior of this kind always leaves me scratching my head. A comment posted on our previous post on the Bloomberg bug over at the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab proposed an intriguing theory: A former Bloomberg journalist suggested that the company’s personnel policies came down so hard on employees who made errors that they were reluctant to admit them at all.
These standards, which are meant to make people super-careful before publishing a story, actually serve as a perverse incentive and cause people at all levels of the newsroom to resist correcting stories after they are published if there is any way to justify leaving the story as is.
This was, we thought, worth a follow-up, and so we contacted the commenter. He turned out to be Steven Bodzin, who’d worked as a reporter in San Francisco and Venezuela for Bloomberg for four years before leaving the company in March. My colleague Mark Follman spoke at length with Bodzin last week.
Bodzin said he “rarely saw complaints from the public get ignored.” He told us that Bloomberg’s culture is actually “hypersensitive” to public response but especially focused on issues raised by sources or by customers who subscribe to its terminal service (Bloomberg’s business was built on selling real-time market data to the financial industry over its own network — only later did it begin distributing news and information on public networks).
Bodzin described his own “prolific” first year as a Bloomberg correspondent, during which five of his stories were cited as exemplary in the company’s weekly internal reviews. He also had an unusually high number of corrections that year — which he attributed to the intense pace of the job — and got the message from his superiors that “you really have to bring that down.” He says that made him more careful. But he observed that the stigma that Bloomberg attached to corrections also encouraged a sort of silence in the newsroom in the face of potential problems.
Certainly there were situations where you realize something is wrong but you’re gonna say “I didn’t see that” or just forget about it.
At Bloomberg that’s considered a really serious offense … but at the same time, if you or nobody else mentions it … no harm no foul. I think it happens. One time a colleague of mine, who’d already had one correction that day, saw one and said to me: “I am Olympically burying this error.”
We asked Bodzin about the specific issue Josh Nelson raised about the drilling-ban poll.
They see this case as a question of interpretation, a judgment call — this is their own poll, a lot of reporters and editors are involved, so they [would all] get a correction. So they aren’t going to want to do it.
What we’re looking at here isn’t some revelation of blatantly irresponsible behavior but a subtler insight into the complex interplay of motivation inside a big organization. Bloomberg is hardly the only company where such a dynamic may be at work. What’s important is that the people who lead such institutions understand the need to change the dynamic — to rebalance the incentives inside their newsrooms.
Unfortunately, this incident suggests that Bloomberg’s culture today clings to the wagon-circling habit. As so much of the rest of the journalism field moves toward more open models, it remains an old-fashioned black-hole newsroom, happy to pump stories out to the world but unwilling to engage with that world when outsiders toss concerns back in. Bodzin explained, “Staffers aren’t supposed to talk to press at all — you’re supposed to send reporters to the PR department.”
And that’s exactly what we found when we tried to get comment from Bloomberg about the issues Bodzin raised. When we asked senior editors at Bloomberg to discuss their own policies and newsroom culture, they shunted us over to Ty Trippet, director of public relations for Bloomberg News, who wrote back:
Our policy is simple: If any Bloomberg News journalist is found to be hiding a mistake and is not transparent about it, their employment with Bloomberg is terminated.
So Bloomberg looks at a nuanced psychological question of newsroom behavior and responds with an “Apocalypse-Now”-style “terminate with extreme prejudice.” Doesn’t exactly give you confidence about the company’s ability to foster a culture of openness around the correction process.
Earlier this week Bloomberg announced the hire of Clark Hoyt — the Knight Ridder veteran who for the last three years served as the New York Times’ public editor. In that ombudsman-style role he served as a channel for public concerns about just the sort of issues we are raising here about Bloomberg.
Though Hoyt’s new management job at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau isn’t a public-editor role, it does put him squarely in the chain of command for stories like the oil-drilling poll. So maybe he’ll look into this, and also more generally at how Bloomberg handles public response to questions of accuracy. Right now, the company’s stance is one that hurts its reputation.
Lord, this is REALY boring.