A Story About Journalism (Or, Why Details Matter): The Implications Of One Small Associated Press Editing Error

Associated Press reporter Greg Risling

Let’s get the facts straight to start. The USC students who were shot and killed last Wednesday were not in a “new 3-series BMW,” as was originally reported. The AP’s Greg Risling, who has been assigned this beat, can be commended for reporting in a follow-up story:

Some Chinese students at USC opted not to attend a candlelight vigil because they were upset by the portrayal on social media that Qu and Wu were indifferent rich students, according to Neon Tommy, a news website sponsored by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“Actually the two of them were very frugal,” Wu’s friend Jia Silu told the website. “Wu shared a room with another girl to save rent. Those who said the BMW was $60,000 have no conscience. It is a total lie.”

The emphasis, rightly, is back on the human tragedy of two lives cut short way before their time.

But it must be asked: how did that “portrayal on social media” of victims Ming Qu and Ying Wu being “indifferent rich students” start, anyway? Why would people have thought that?

And here’s where we put the Associated Press back on the chopping block. Let’s look at its original story (we’ll use the China Daily link for the hell of it; all emphasis mine):

LOS ANGELES — A gunman opened fire on a BMW near the University of Southern California campus on Wednesday, killing two international students from China in what may have been a bungled carjacking attempt, police said.

The gunfire erupted around 1 a.m., shattering the windows on the new 3-series luxury car….

Three paragraphs later:

The gunman fled and no one has been arrested, Smith said. Police have taken the $60,000 BMW away for examination and were attempting to determine if there were any surveillance cameras in the area.

Before we proceed, let me pause and say the thing that shouldn’t need to be said: the car model shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter if the kids were rich and spoiled. What matters is the horrific fact that two sets of parents have lost their children who were half a world away studying to make better lives for themselves. This is a ridiculously tragic story, and it doesn’t take many details — or lack thereof — to verify at least that much.

But…

But an editing error at the AP diverted attention away from the core issue, and a questionable editorial choice — to put the detail about the cost of the new BMW so high in the story — has caused a lot more grief than necessary.

Angela Bao, a journalism student at Columbia University, emailed Greg Risling at 6:31 pm Eastern Time the day after the shooting to inform him of his error. The correspondence — including his replies — can be seen here on Sina Weibo, as directed to me by Big Brother Chang of Seagull Reference, who deserves credit for bringing this story to light in a blog post yesterday titled “Practicing of Journalism Demonstrated by an AP reporter.”

Bao pointed out that some “Chinese journalists have talked to the dead students’ friends and they recalled that the car was purchased at $10,000.” Furthermore, “they said the BMW is a 2003 model and is a used car, which the Chinese male student purchased to make trips to work earlier.”

Risling replied 16 minutes later, according to Bao’s Weibo post. Here it is (assume [sic] on all of these block quotes):

Angela: The story originally said a new 3-model BMW can cost up to $60,000, then an editor cut that element out and put $60,000 BMW, not to mention that the car was. The story was updated throughout the day and the “new” reference and $60,000 amount, which was in earlier versions, was taken out.  Please go ahead and send me the link of the friends’ account.  BTW you cannot republish what I wrote here on the Internet in any language.  Greg/AP

For the first 66 words in his 81-word reply, Risling sounds like a reasonable journalist who merely suffered that indignity all journalists suffer at one point or another in their careers: the careless, edit-happy, pencil-pushing desk editor. But his last sentence sounds vaguely paranoid, even mildly threatening. Cannot publish … in any language.

Most media organizations, when they discover they’ve made a mistake whether online or in print, immediately move to publicly correct their error, often as conspicuously as possible. Not AP though. Risling, for whatever reason, chooses to toe the company line and take a rather defensive position, essentially telling Bao to not publicize this matter, as if it didn’t matter.

Before we get to Risling’s next email, sent at 7:16 pm on the same day, here is an excerpt of what Bao then wrote to him:

…I want you to know that your report has been translated widely in Chinese and many people say the students “deserve it” as they thought they were some “Rich Second-Generation.” The term means that their parents are some corrupt cadres and businessmen and Chinese public hate this kind of people.

By all means, your report and its translated version have caused great pain to the dead’ friends and families, which can be easily found on Renren, Chinese facebook and Weibo, Chinese Twitter. There might not be much to do after a mistaken has been made, but I just want you to know what is being discussed in China now.

Here’s Risling’s reply:

Angela: We took out the reference when there were complaints by some students making the same statements. The police have not confirmed what year the car was made, but we took the reference out anyway and it hasn’t been in the story for last 24 hours.  You are not authorized, nor am I, to put information out on the Internet representing AP.  An editing mistake was made, fixed and if the Chinese media are seizing upon that one aspect and not that two people were murdered, they are misguided.  Greg

You can clearly see who is misguided, right? Bao never once mentioned Chinese media. If anything, her claim was that Chinese media corrected the error. In his latest email, Risling spends 46 out of 90 words acting like a responsible journalist, and his other words make him sound like a defensive flack. Representing AP? Who and how? Bao, to the best of my knowledge, never said she was going to pretend to be the Associated Press and issue a retraction on their behalf. She doesn’t so much as even ask for a retraction, even though that’s what any self-respecting media organization would go head over heels to provide.

I know it’s unfair of me to close-read an email like this, but Risling begins to sound like someone who doesn’t get why the error matters. Or — much worse — he understands the implications perfectly well and that’s why he wants to sweep it under the rug, because it’s all too embarrassing for a company as big and influential as the Associated Press to admit that the ripple from a small editing mistake — that one act of carelessness by an anonymous editor we’ll never hear from — could find its way overseas and cause surging waves of anger.

Here are some of chinaSMACK’s translations of netizen comments regarding this development:

Very upset with the news headlines! The first half of the titles are the death, and the second half is Chinese people’s ever-present competitive/envious mentality, as if human life in the news worker’s eyes are just tools to get attention. Why did the writer have to point out “BMW”? Could he not have just calmly written “died in a car”? Had to use “inside a BMW” to attract eyeballs, was the first half about young people passing away not enough to make people sad? In the face of tragedy, excessive publicizing will only make human vanity even uglier.

The shameful vanity of regarding what is an ordinary thing as a treasure can only be spurned before life.
R.I.P. for young lives!

And:

If they’re the children of government officials, they hurry and die. The more that dies, the better. If they’re ordinary commoners, then a moment of silence.

And:

Well-killed! Must prevent these heartless rich corrupt government officials who live off of the people and cheat the people from continuing their family lines!

I think that’s enough. As with all online discussions on sensitive topics, there’s a lot of anger from all sides, and lots of regrettable comments become permanently public. By excerpting these comments, I’m not trying to imply that any significant portion of China’s netizens are indifferent to the tragedy of this shooting.

I do, however, wish to make clear that this is why journalism matters, and why, more importantly, accountability matters. It’s because you’re putting out a version of the truth. Let the weight of that concept sink in. The truth.

Risling’s final email to Bao (at least in the Weibo thread) came at 7:37 pm:

If the friend wants to send me the information he can do so at this email.  We wouldn’t publish the information but it could come in handy for future stories. Per our policy, we do correctives when the story has fallen out of cycle. We do put in notes only seen by our members what corrections are made in a story such like this where information is being updated frequently. Lastly here are two stories we’ve sent out today and you can see we reference the hubbub caused by the BMW reference. Greg

Risling restores some credibility to himself and his organization, because I assume he sent the story that appears at the top of this post. That’s admirable of him to acknowledge the AP’s error in an entirely separate story… without actually ever acknowledging the error, of course.

For whatever reason, that lack of acknowledgement sits poorly with me. I don’t know that issuing a retraction on AP’s website is going to do anything, honestly. I don’t know what AP could do, short of sending a memorandum to all its members. I don’t know even know if that’ll be enough to convince the lazy editors at China Daily and the Guardian to change the stories currently on their websites.

But I do hope we’ve learned something from this episode, specifically about the power of the media. Of its ability to educate and — unfortunately — its ability to mislead. Let that convince us to all be wary readers, too.

AP, you can look on the bright side, though: you’re not as bad as the entertainment websites implicated in our previous “Journalism”-tagged post. None of them have issued corrections, and for crying out loud, they published a fake quote.

26 Responses to “A Story About Journalism (Or, Why Details Matter): The Implications Of One Small Associated Press Editing Error”

  1. franklydontthinkmuchofit

    Of this whole pointless fuss which no one outside the so-called journalist loop prolly cares about, the only thing amuses me in that Col Univ student’s piece is “Probably you don’t know that common Chinese audiences are very.jealous of those who were born rich, and you article has caused huge public anger”…..Oops, I just I was just (mis)represented again, and I wish her the best to become Rui Chenggang’s best disciple

    Reply
  2. beef zeppelin

    Let’s put the BMW aside for a second.

    What about the ethics of a journalist student who republishes private correspondence, despite being specifically told the writer had requested that she not. “But his last sentence sounds vaguely paranoid”… yes, because Risling had taken the time to respond to a stranger’s e-mail and, what to do you know, Ms Bao responded by trying to get ahead and publishing his off-the-record remarks. The latter is a bigger breach of media ethics, in my opinion. Risling’s was a fog-of-the-news-cycle error.

    Your thoughts, Mr Tao?

    Reply
    • The Tao

      Don’t know where the expectation for confidentiality comes from. Risling said nothing worth protecting. Bao was absolutely correct to do what AP wasn’t willing to — expose where the error came from (AP, not Risling specifically) and how it happened.

      Reply
      • C. Custer

        That’s not how it works. As a journalist, you don’t just get to decide what’s “worth protecting” and what isn’t. If your subject says something is off-the-record, it’s off the record, period. You may think Bao was right to bring it to light morally speaking, but it’s unquestionably a violation of journalistic ethics, and in this case, it could cost Risling — who, it seems, wasn’t actually the source of the error — his job.

        Reply
          • C. Custer

            She is a student at Columbia Journalism School, which probably means she is a journalist, as I can’t imagine they’d admit someone who didn’t have journalistic experience of any kind. But OK, even if she’s not officially a journalist, it’s still a violation of regular ethics.

            Or, to put it another way, would you be cool with your private emails being published without your permission? No? Then you shouldn’t be OK with this.

            There is no reason, journalistic or otherwise, to publish the emails verbatim. If Bao wanted to expose the story, she could just as easily have done so paraphrasing the emails and not naming a specific source.

          • C. Custer

            *slight correction: she’s a “journalism student”, so perhaps not actually in J-school, it’s not clear. Regardless, studying journalism means practicing journalism, which means that (a) she IS a journalist and (b) she’s probably taken an entire class recently on journalistic ethics, and this sort of situation is pretty basic stuff.

        • Jing

          I totally agree with you on the preach of journalistic ethics by publishing off-the-record quote, especially considering Angela Bao worked at New York Times Shanghai Bureau before. There is no way that a NYT staff writer can get away with using quotes without the speaker’s consent, no matter how controversial the quote itself is.

          Reply
        • Cranston

          I agree with this. She shouldn’t have published the off-the-record comments. Doesn’t excuse the AP but doesn’t reflect well on Ms. Bao either.

          Reply
  3. C. Custer

    I think you’re taking Risling to task rather unfairly here. I believe his points about not being allowed to republish his comments and not being authorized to represent AP should probably be understood as him trying to follow AP rules so as not to lose his job. I’ve never worked for the AP, but I feel certain that there, as in most media organizations, a reporter commenting publicly about internal editing practices is a BIG no-no, especially if they haven’t cleared it with their bosses first. I would imagine if Risling’s bosses see this email exchange — and they probably will — he could be in danger of losing his job, not because the story had a mistake (it happens, and it sounds like it was an editing error anyway) but because he’s talking about things he’s not supposed to talk about according to his contract (I’m guessing).

    I agree the car isn’t super-important to the story, but I do think the model and price are relevant, as they suggest a possible motivation for the crime. Not that that excuses getting those facts wrong, but it does make sense to include some information about the make of the car because it helps people understand what the gunman may have been attempting to gain in committing this crime.

    Also….if we want to talk about journalism, publishing private email correspondence online when the sender has explicitly told you you don’t have permission to do that is a pretty serious violation of journalistic ethics. I realize that it wasn’t you who actually publicized any of this, but you are perpetuating it. Not cool.

    Reply
    • adam

      Colonel Mustard, I bing’d (google performance issues) “car jacking murders” in every single story on the first page the make and model of the car came at the very end of the story if it was mentioned at all. Whereas in Risling’s story BMW is featured prominently.

      In the opening sentence:
      A gunman opened fire on a BMW …

      First sentence of 2nd paragraph:
      The couple was sitting in the new 3-series luxury car

      it’s own paragraph mid article:
      The gunman fled and no one has been arrested, Cmdr. Smith said. Police have taken the $60,000 BMW away for examination and were attempting to determine if there were any surveillance cameras in the area.

      Photo caption:
      Blown out: The windows of the BMW luxury car were blown away

      And finally, another section that passively implies they were asking for it:

      Students Kenny Liu, who is Chinese-American and lives nine blocks from where the shooting occurred, said the area is unsafe and that it’s also not uncommon to see BMWs and other expensive cars parked near the campus.
      ‘If I owned a BMW, I wouldn’t drive it here,’ he said.

      Don’t believe me? Go ahead and read all about car jacking murders and you’ll be lucky to find a single reference to the type or model of car and even then it’ll be buried at the bottom as just background.

      Greg Risling should lose his job, but not because like an idiot he thought a non-journalist would follow off the record protocols. That’s like telling your teenage son what the parental control password is but expecting him not to watch any porn.

      Reply
      • adam

        P.S. almost all of those other stories I found were also produced by AP so clearly they don’t have a “in the first sentence you gotta use the brand of car in the same sentence you describe a brutal murder and then repeatedly reference catchphrases like luxury when referencing the car thereafter” rule.

        Reply
      • C. Custer

        Risling should lose his job because…why, exactly? The “new” bit was changed by an editor. The photo caption certainly wasn’t Risling either. And the quote you’re upset about does seem relevant, given that it comes from someone in the same location and community who also seems to believe the make/model of the car is relevant to the crime. I don’t think it “passively implies they deserved it” at all. What it implies is that maybe driving a BMW in that area isn’t a great idea, perhaps a lapse in judgement. That’s probably true, and it’s certainly relevant information to convey in a news story, but I’m not sure how you jump from that to “they deserved to be murdered.”

        So, Risling should be fired because he mentioned the car’s make earlier in the story than some other news stories you read, and because he quoted a source who you disagree with? That’s pretty weak.

        As for Bao, like I said in the other comment, she’s a journalism student. There’s no way she “didn’t know” about this rule.

        Reply
  4. adam

    Awesome story, it’s bullshit like this where it seems necessary to add in hooks like “but they were in BMW” just to change the slant. Whether or not Risling added the 60k part himself, he still needlessly added the BMW.

    I distinctly recall while reading this original report that I found it odd they put in the manufacturer of the car as that seemed to have little to do with the story of two students brutally murdered. It also seemed in conflict as the quotes from the neighbors emphasized that the couple mostly walked/biked around and didn’t drive the car very frequently.

    I’d love to see what would happen if something happened to me in my 1989 Volvo 740 GLE, that car is a beast that was passed down and spent 10+ years in the hands of college students, it is maybe worth 50 bucks now but brand new went for over 25k in 1989 which is equivalent to 46k today.

    Headline: Presumed local trustafarian in luxury sedan caught slumming it “ironically” at Arby’s

    Reply
  5. John Artman

    What about the fact that witnesses (people living in the area) said that crime wasn’t a big problem there anymore. One women said the last time she saw violence in the area was 2003

    Reply
  6. bmw_price_check

    Shouldn’t the real call out for lack of journalistic integrity NOT be the statement of a fact (that the victims were in a BMW) but rather the completely bogus price of $60,000? A 3-series does not cost this much. Everyone knows that.

    In fact their seems to be no outrage that the race of the victims was mentioned. Suggesting the AP write that the victims were shot “in a car” (rather than BMW) suggests the story should announce that “3 human beings we killed in a motorized vehicle from wounds inflicted by little pieces of metal in an area near a place of learning on the planet earth.” Details are what make a story.

    Additionally, why are we complaining at all they the writer tried to make the story sound more interesting? The whole point of journalism is to sell papers and drive traffic to websites to sell advertising. Journalists never tell facts, they spin them through their presentation of facts, the quotes they choose to use, and the adjectives they select. That’s why we have media labels such as liberal, conservative, mainstream, independent, etc. They tell the “same” story from a different angle and with a different bias.

    Reply

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