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May 24 / King Kaufman

N.Y. Times numerical errors offer lessons on verifying, sourcing’s Craig Silverman reports on some numerical errors in recent New York Times stories that were bad enough to blow up the very premise of those stories.

We’re sportswriters here, so our ears should perk up. We work with numbers all the time. But the real take-away involves something else we do all the time at Bleacher Report, which is write and talk about news and information that’s been reported elsewhere. That is, verifying information.

In one of the two stories Silverman focuses on, the Times misinterpreted the data from a survey about college debt. In the other, though, the mistake was more relevant to what Bleacher Report writers do: The Times repeated a mistake made by other media outlets.

You may have heard about the story in question, an op-ed headlined “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths,” in which essayist William Deresiewicz wrote in his lead:

A recent study found that 10 percent of people who work on Wall Street are ”clinical psychopaths,” exhibiting a lack of interest in and empathy for others and an ”unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.” (The proportion at large is 1 percent.)

Well, as the Columbia Journalism Review details, not quite. The study really found that 4 percent of corporate managers, not 10 percent of Wall Street workers, fit the profile of psychopaths, and also, by the way, the sample studied was not representative, so no conclusions can be drawn from it.

That’s a big mistake! So how did it happen? CJR’s Ryan Chittum runs down the “game of telephone” that led to the bogus claim that led to an op-ed based on a false premise:

The “study” the original NYT piece linked to was an article in CFA Institute magazine, as Edward Jay Epstein writes at The Daily Beast. Actually, Epstein writes that the Times linked to an aggregated version of CFA’s story that ran in The Week, which itself was aggregating the story via other aggregators.

In other words, the Times’s false information was sourced from The Week, which sourced it, via aggregated posts at master aggregators Business Insider and Huffington Post, from CFA Institute magazine which sourced it, erroneously, from “Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare.”

This is telephone, press style. The Times was at least four derivative sources removed from the original source of the information. If anyone along the way messed it up, as the first reporter did, the whole chain was vulnerable. Some editor at the Times should have noticed that the column’s most eye-opening claim, one on which it hung its whole thesis, was sourced not to the APA or some academic journal, but to The Week, which in turn was sourcing it on down the line.

As Silverman of Poynter writes, “This mistake, and its path to the Times op-ed, shows the way a claim, once published in one media outlet, can replicate itself in other reports. It also shows why relying on other media outlets for the purposes of sourcing and fact checking can be a risky proposition.”

Here are some Bleacher Report Blog posts reviewing best practices for verifying information:

  • Verifying sources: A primer and checklist by Dan Bonato

    Parts 1-3 of Paul Kasabian’s 10-part series explaining Bleacher Report’s Content Standards in depth:

  • How to properly source breaking news reports

  • Sourcing for rumors, direct quotes and paraphrases

  • Better safe than sorry on sourcing

    • Kay Jennings

      Yikes…what a nightmare example.

    • Aaron Dodge

      A very similar situation just occurred when the Boston Herald reported that Brian Waters would be returning for his 14th season, it will actually be his 13th, but the false headline has already spread like wildfire.