Mark Powell, Arlington, Va., column: N.D. pokes up again in war on media error

By Mark Powell ARLINGTON, Va. -- In supposedly "top" media, uncorrected factual error is so common that even with little sampling, even sub-sub niches have files. In Virginia, not looking for Dakotas stories, I have a small but noteworthy Dakotas...

By Mark Powell

ARLINGTON, Va. -- In supposedly "top" media, uncorrected factual error is so common that even with little sampling, even sub-sub niches have files. In Virginia, not looking for Dakotas stories, I have a small but noteworthy Dakotas file.

First, looking back: Newsweek science columnist Sharon Begley, formerly at the Wall Street Journal, wrote in May 5, 2008's issue that North Dakota is "not the nation's breadbasket" -- presumably because it grows little or no wheat. The state simply is too far north for serious, Kansas-scale agriculture, even with global warming, Begley suggests.

Consider the fundamental -- I call it conceptual -- incompetence about geography and agriculture manifest there. Consider the grim resolve to not correct error (like every Newsweek error in my files, some yet wilder, it went uncorrected).

Newsweek's longtime parent until a sale that closed Sept. 30 was the Washington Post -- our leading paper, judging by its many Pulitzers and very few reported internal scandals. But on May 30, 2008 -- a few weeks after Begley's bow -- the Post in covering Hillary Clinton's campaign again flaunted flyover-country expertise:


Watertown, the first South Dakota city of size down Interstate 29 from North Dakota, is supposedly in western South Dakota .

No correction, same as nearly all the many hundreds of Post errors I cataloged in 2004-08. In rare Post glances since 2008, I've seen it worse, if anything.

Practically all media criticism concerns political bias (real or imagined), personalities, sometimes what's covered and how. "Top" media's two unadmitted and, they think, unadmittable problems are common incompetence and, yet more important, mania against correction, wholly contrary to pious but mendacious public claims.

The biggest outlet of all is The Associated Press, constituting the bulk of many papers, especially smaller ones, beyond very local news.

AP's massive distribution magnifies its legion errors. Its outlets, large and small, almost never correct even obviously dirty AP copy. I regularly see AP only in Yahoo's featured news, AP's most-read of all.

Even tiny sampling allows many AP sub-files. But the organization only snarls and spits when contacted with errors, never admitting, denying or correcting. That's the most common of all response behaviors.

AP on North Dakota: On Sept. 23, an AP story on the expansion of Devils Lake called it "the largest freshwater body in North Dakota , with an estimated shoreline of at least 1,000 miles."

No, it's the largest natural lake. The manmade Lake Sakakawea is far larger.


But that's warmup. A thousand-mile shoreline? North Dakota's entire perimeter isn't much more.

Devils Lake is modestly complex, anchoring a more complex set of lakes and wetlands and allowing widely varying size figures. It also fluctuates wildly, as North Dakotans know. The lake was barely there at all in 1940, the U.S. Geological Survey notes. As recently as 1991, it approximated the level of 1900, with lake-proper area of just a few dozen square miles. That's equal to a square not even 10 miles a side.

Today, in contrast, Devils Lake is beyond 200 square miles. That's a square of about 15 miles on a side, or a circle of about 17 miles across.

Of course, it's no square or circle. Its irregular shore clearly unspools to more than 100 miles. Some sites claim "hundreds"; some 375. But counting twists down to mile-size -- convention, expressing shore in miles -- even that's a stretch.

Who else ran this misinformation? Glancing, I saw many major outlets. I engaged one, National Public Radio, which ran the story online. But in sustained communication, NPR's ombudsman (like other ombudsmen) focused on evasion and obfuscation, refusing even to ask what story had errors.

It's common behavior I sometimes elicit by declaring but not specifying error, pending credible response.

NPR's special twist: claiming no responsibility to correct errors on even major NPR-broadcast shows since they're technically not NPR-produced.

Who else? Well, the Herald ran the story, as the editorial page editor acknowledged. And the -- wait for it -- Devils Lake Journal not only ran it but seemed to claim it, adding its copyright and its own byline to AP's.


A former syndicated columnist, Powell specializes in documenting major media's factual errors and correction performance and behaviors.

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