Readers' Representative Journal

A conversation on newsroom ethics and standards

Category: Accuracy issues

Location of NASA's JPL is a bit of a curiosity


If we can land a rover on Mars, surely we can identify the city where NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located. Right?

When it came to The Times' recent coverage of Mars rover Curiosity, reader Sabrina Peck of Pasadena wasn't so sure.

"My husband has been a JPL engineer in Pasadena since 1979. Yes, Pasadena: Zip 91109," she wrote in an email. "Why do your writers assert that JPL is in La Cañada Flintridge?"

The short answer: Because it is.

But it wasn't always, and that's where the confusion comes in.

The story starts in 1936 with three scientists experimenting with rockets. That led to the establishment of a center for rocket science on the Caltech campus, in Pasadena. In 1940, when the explosions became a bit too loud and dangerous for the middle of the city, a facility was built in the foothills above Pasadena. And in 1943, the site was dubbed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

From 1943 forward, JPL was, for all intents and purposes, in Pasadena, and it had a Pasadena mailing address.

Then in 1976, residents of JPL's neighboring community voted to incorporate and became La Cañada Flintridge. The city limits included JPL's campus.

But  JPL kept its Pasadena mailing address -- which suits the La Cañada post office just fine. The Pasadena post office, which serves a city of 140,000 residents, is better equipped to manage the facility's mail than La Cañada, which serves a city of 20,000.

(In 2010, a postal carrier wrote and implored The Times to stop reporting that JPL was in La Cañada because it resulted in a flood to the city's lone post office.)

JPL's website notes the dichotomy. The mailing address is listed as 4800 Oak Grove Drive,
Pasadena, CA 91109. But this is what it says under "Directions": Street address for use in online map searches: 4800 Oak Grove Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

The issue seems to come up each time JPL makes national news. A 1997 article by Times staff writer Bob Pool carries the wonderful headline, "We've Found Mars, but Where is JPL?"

Presumably, the mailing address is what guides national media, which have focused attention on JPL amid Curiosity's mission to Mars. A headline Wednesday declared: "Curiosity's Martian Playground is Technically Located in Pasadena"

No. Technically, it's in La Cañada Flintridge.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: JPL's campus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

L.A. Times falls for Internet hoax, then sets the record straight

On May 1, The Times and a number of other media organizations followed the outrageous story reported in a British newspaper of a vengeful dentist in Poland who pulled out all of her ex-boyfriend’s teeth.

The Times’ article on the Tech Now blog focused on the huge response the story had received online:

Versions of the story have been tweeted and shared again and again on Facebook and via Google. A version of the story posted on Yahoo News already has 15,000 comments and counting.

But the article went on to repeat details of the story in the original Daily Mail article -- which has since been removed from its website -- including quotes from the reputed victim, such as, “I didn’t have any reason to doubt her; I mean I thought she was a professional.”

Unfortunately, reported Wednesday, the story was a hoax.

MSNBC did some digging into the story and found:

  • Police in Wroclaw, Poland, had no record of such an incident.
  • Poland’s Chamber of Physicians and Dentists also had no record of any such incident, nor of the dentist named in the article.
  • The Daily Mail could not recall where the story came from.
  • And the American Dental Assn. said the such a case was highly improbable.

After Craig Silverman of Regret the Error pointed out MSNBC’s findings on the Poynter Institute’s website, The Times corrected its May 1 article.

Times reporter Rene Lynch also wrote a follow-up post that was published Wednesday evening.

“No doubt, journalism watchdogs will rightfully point to the episode as a cautionary tale of what can happen when journalists like me are sitting at a keyboard, trying to keep up with fast-breaking news and a 24-hour news cycle that just doesn't quit,” Lynch wrote.

“Kudos to MSNBC for taking the time and making the effort to follow the story behind the story. No matter how fast the news is breaking, there's always time to find out the truth.” 

--Deirdre Edgar


'Several hundred' vs. 10,000: Debating May Day crowd estimates


Crowd estimates are notoriously unreliable, with organizers quoting larger numbers and authorities giving more conservative figures. It’s no wonder readers are confused -– or skeptical -– about the numbers reported for events such as this year's May Day protests in Los Angeles.

In an article Tuesday, an immigrant and labor-rights march downtown was said to have drawn "only several hundred people," and an Occupy protest was said to have had "about 1,000."

Reporters said the numbers came from their own estimates and from police and security officials.

But readers thought they were too low.

"One wonders what demonstrations The Times was reporting on for Los Angeles May Day," wrote Robin Doyno of Los Angeles.

"The march north on Broadway alone had more than 2,000 people. The West Wind, one of four directional approaches to downtown, contained at least 50 cars, 30 bikes and two large buses on the approach from Santa Monica to MacArthur Park. And yes, the Labor, Immigration and Occupy communities all did their own thing yet did show up for May Day in numbers much higher than reported."

Jim Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild in Los Angeles, cited a much higher estimate. He said his organization, which describes itself as "an effective political and social force in the service of the people," had 60 observers among the May Day protests.

"I am left wondering if the article's reporters were even actually in Los Angeles yesterday," he wrote to The Times. "I was present throughout the largest of the two principal immigrant rights marches and rallies, and at the first, and biggest, other reporters on the scene estimated the crowd as 'about 10,000,' not 'only several hundred,' as The Times reported."

In their coverage of the protests, the Los Angeles Daily News cited "thousands" of participants, as did KABC-TV and KNBC-TV. However, before the rallies, KCBS-TV reported that 10,000 immigrants-rights marchers were expected.

But how reliable are any of these estimates?

Continue reading »

'Women 99 and Over': These marathon results were unbelievable


Several readers skimmed the results of the Los Angeles Marathon in Monday’s Sports section and discovered something unbelievable.

The final age group category listed was “Women 99 and Over” -- and there were three finishers.

“I don't know about anyone else, but I'd sure like to meet the three women in the female age group ‘Women 99 and Over’ who completed the 2012 Los Angeles Marathon in under 5:30,” Maggie O’Donnell-Mogil wrote. “Now there's a story for the Los Angeles Times!”

Dorothy Carter of Los Angeles was similarly incredulous. “A 99-year-old woman completes the L.A. Marathon in under 5 hours? And two other 99-year-olds complete it in under 5 1/2 hours! Impossible!” she emailed. “Are there pictures of them crossing the finish line?”

Laurie Anderson of Palos Verdes Estates figured it must be an error. “If these numbers are accurate, why wasn't there an article written about these unbelievably fit women?” she asked. “Perhaps a second look and possibly a correction is in order.”

Marathon-resultsIndeed, this called for a second look.

The website for the L.A. Marathon has a database of race results, and by Tuesday afternoon there was no “99 and Over” category listed for women (or men, for that matter). There was, however, an “Invalid age” category -- and that’s where the “99-year-old” women could be found.

Because of an error, the women’s ages defaulted to 99 -- and the top three finishers initially were listed in the “99 and Over” group. That’s how The Times received the results Sunday night. By Tuesday, that was corrected on the marathon’s website, but the erroneous category had already been printed in Monday’s paper.

It’s too bad. Three 99-year-old women finishing the marathon? That would have been a great story.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: The 2012 Los Angeles Marathon gets underway at Dodger Stadium. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Dutch? Danish? They do both start with D...


Dutch2 Wooden-shoes


Denmark1 Danish-modern

A For the Record item in Tuesday’s Times sounded familiar to newsroom library director Cary Schneider.

The correction, on the Op-Ed page, read:

Free speech: A March 9 Op-Ed about the erosion of free-speech protections referred to a controversy over 2005 cartoons that satirized the prophet Muhammad. Those cartoons were Danish, not Dutch.

That prompted him to do what any curious researcher might: He looked up previous instances of Danish/Dutch confusion.

He found an unfortunate trend:

Continue reading »

What's in a name? Depends on whether you use the tilde

An article Sunday about recent missteps by a leading Mexican presidential candidate prompted a critical response from one reader.

But Jose Suarez of Los Angeles wasn’t upset by anecdotes about the candidate’s inability to name a book he’d read or to quote the price of tortillas. Suarez questioned The Times’ spelling of the candidate’s name: Enrique Pena Nieto.

“I noticed you keep calling him Pena Nieto even though his name is Peña Nieto,” Suarez wrote. “I cannot understand why a newspaper doesn't respect the spelling of a presidential candidate of a country.

“The ‘ñ’ is an official part of a major language, and word meaning changes if you don't use it. ‘Peña’ means a big rock or a place of reunion; ‘Pena’ means shame. When you report about the meteorological phenomenon of El Niño, you don’t call it El Nino. Spanish (Español) should be taken seriously.”

The reader is right. The article should have used a tilde in the spelling of Peña Nieto’s last name.

Editors had good intentions here. They were following one entry in The Times’ stylebook that says diacritical marks generally are not used in stories in the news sections -- with a couple of notable exceptions, including El Niño.

However, a separate style note states that the tilde should be used in “all proper nouns (generally, capitalized names of people and places) where it is known to be appropriate.”

Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, who heads The Times’ style committee, said, “The reader’s point is well taken. Our style guidelines are clear on use of the tilde, though in day-to-day practice we have tended to rely on having the subjects of our coverage tell us their preferences. Here, with a major political figure and potential future president of Mexico, it should have been easy to establish what’s appropriate. We’ll use ‘Peña’ henceforth.

“The style note makes a good further point about not making assumptions: ‘Be aware that not all Spanish-surnamed people, especially among Americans, use the tilde,’” Fuhrmann said. “With Enrique Peña Nieto, we didn’t have to assume anything.”

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Enrique Peña Nieto campaigns in Mexico City in November. Credit: Marco Ugarte / Associated Press

Vanessa Bryant to get millions in divorce -- but is it a 'windfall'?

BryantsLakers star Kobe Bryant's divorce has been big news in Los Angeles. After the initial article in Saturday's LATExtra section that reported Vanessa Bryant's court filing, an article Tuesday looked into details of a possible settlement. The couple reportedly had no prenuptial agreement, so, the article said, Vanessa Bryant is probably entitled to at least $75 million, half of her husband’s net worth.

The article characterized this as a "windfall" for Vanessa Bryant.

Reader Pam Wilson of San Diego said she found this description "blatantly sexist."

PHOTOS: Kobe and Vanessa Bryant

"The premise is that Bryant's wife, Vanessa, does not deserve half of the couple's community property," Wilson emailed. "She is getting a 'windfall,' i.e. something she does not deserve, because obviously, Kobe was the one earning the money."

The Times' dictionary of record, Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition, defines a windfall as "any unexpected acquisition, gain, or stroke of good luck." It doesn’t suggest that a windfall is something undeserved. However, the definition of surprise or luck doesn't square with the usage in the article. A community-property settlement isn't lucky -- it's the law.

Wilson also questioned where the term came from. The second paragraph of the article reads: "But legal experts said it's clear Bryant's wife will leave the marriage with a windfall."

"Which legal expert said that?" Wilson asked. "Not one is quoted in the story as the source for that sexist characterization."

In the article, attorney Dmitry Gorin says that Vanessa Bryant will probably get "more than enough for many lifetimes." But Wilson is right, no one is quoted as using the word "windfall," which makes it appear to be The Times' description.

Though many of us would consider $75 million to be a windfall, in the context of a settlement under the state’s community-property law, "windfall" wasn't the right word.

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Kobe and Vanessa Bryant at a benefit in 2005. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Readers care about grammatical errors, typos

Those who write to The Times often are careful readers who have high expectations. And when they spot typographical or grammatical errors, readers don’t hesitate to let us know.

Here is a sampling of such emails received this week:

Regarding an article Thursday about humpback whales off Santa Cruz, Rebby Kern of Riverside noted: “There is a comma ending a paragraph on page AA4. Thank you.”

Stephany Yablow of North Hollywood found an editing error in the letters in Monday’s Health section: “You have an egregious typographical error. Even if the letter writer said ‘overall,’ you (who reserve editorial prerogative) should have changed it to ‘overhaul.’  The error detracted from the impact of the statement and made The Times look stupid.  This is a perfect example of why proofreaders (if you still have such people) cannot rely on ‘spell check.’ ”

And several readers pointed out a verb tense error (now fixed) in a headline on a blog post about Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. Patricia Oats of Fairfield, Iowa, was one: “Headline: 'Kim Kardashian, Kris Humphries: What factors lead to divorce?' It should be ‘what factors led to divorce?’ (past tense). Granted, if one is reading about the Kardashians, one is probably none too bright, but still the L.A. Times should have some standards, we think.”

Research done for the American Copy Editors Society this spring confirmed what the Readers’ Rep inbox tells us.

Fred Vultee, a journalism professor at Wayne State University, studied a group of readers over a three-month period. His findings:

  • Readers who read more news tend to be more critical than people who read less.
  • Dedicated readers expect a higher level of quality than casual readers, particularly in terms of grammar and professionalism.
  • Readers notice grammar errors and find them troubling and distracting.
  • Readers notice writing that is garbled and confusing, and when words are misspelled or misused.
  • Most readers are less concerned about errors of style and story structure than they are about professionalism and grammar. “They really don’t care if you abbreviate ‘road,’ Vultee said. “They don’t care if you start a paragraph with a number.”

Readers who are concerned about such errors often ask — as one reader did above — whether stories are still edited or proofread. Yes, they are.

For online articles and blog posts, nearly all are edited before being published. An article may be published before editing if it is breaking news or a competitive story. In those cases, an editor will edit it after the fact, make any fixes, and republish.

All stories for the print edition are edited before publication.

As every editor knows, more errors are caught than not. However, despite the best intentions of reporters and editors, errors do sometimes slip through. And readers notice.

— Deirdre Edgar


Yes, we really spell it 'Kadafi'

Kadafi-APAnd we seem to have done so since 1969.

The man whose name the Los Angeles Times spells as Moammar Kadafi is Muammer el-Qaddafi in the New York Times, Moammar Gaddafi in the Washington Post and Moammar Gadhafi in Associated Press articles.

We addressed the spelling of the late Libyan president's name in February and again in August. In short:

We began using Kadafi in 1969, when the rebel leader seized power, under guidance from our Middle East correspondent at the time. He advised that the sound that begins the leader’s name was best translated as a “k”. (That also explains our spelling of Koran vs. AP’s Quran.)

The Poynter Institute weighed in today with a blog post: Not that news orgs care, but Libyan leader spelled his name ‘Moammar El-Gadhafi’

Many readers, seeing the varied spellings used by others in the news media, are sure The Times is wrong.

Reader R. Kaller emailed today to ask if "Kadafi" was a phonetic spelling and argued that  "Gaddafi" was correct. "I expect higher standards of The Times," Kaller wrote.

At least we've been consistent all these years.

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Moammar Kadafi addresses the U.N. General Assembly in 2009. Credit: Richard Drew / Associated Press


It's a hot debate: chile vs. chili

Chile peppers Bowl of chili

In Mark Magnier’s Column One article Thursday, he wrote about the “ghost chile” of northeast India – considered the world’s hottest pepper.

But it wasn’t the spice that made readers uncomfortable – it was the spelling of “chile.”

“I have never seen the pepper spelled with an ‘e’ rather than an ‘i,’ and I am sure that this was an error,” wrote Julie May of Los Angeles.

And Judith Perles emailed: “Please tell Mr. Mark Magnier about the difference between chili and Chile. Chili gives you an ulcer, although Chile, the country west of Argentina, could give it to you too in a different way. P.S. I am not from Chile, and I don't even eat chili con carne!”

However, Magnier (and his editors) were simply following The Times' stylebook, which explains it this way:

Chile: The country in South America. Lowercase, it is the pepper; plural is chiles.

chili: The dish consisting of beef, chiles, etc.

Of course, this matter is confused by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band apparently didn't consult the stylebook.

--Deirdre Edgar

Red Hot Chili Peppers


Top left: Chile peppers growing in Santa Ana. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.

Top right: A bowl of chili. Credit: Los Angeles Times.

Bottom: The Red Hot Chili Peppers performing in 2010. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.

Making sure photos aren't muddling the message


A recent Opinion L.A. blog post ran into some misunderstanding with readers over the accompanying photo. The post noted the quiet opening of an Islamic community center near the ground zero site in New York and said the lack of outcry "may indicate a lull in Islam-bashing in political discourse."

The post was headlined "Is anti-Islamic sentiment subsiding?" and featured a photo (above) of a group of men attending the opening of the center.

The problem came with the juxtaposition of the headline about anti-Islamic sentiment and the photo of the men, who are Sikhs. Several readers interpreted this to mean that editors didn't know the difference between Muslims and Sikhs.

"It absolutely confounds me to think that no one at L.A. Times caught sight of the fact that although the article is related to the anti-Muslim sentiment, Sikh gentlemen are pictured next to it. Are we so ignorant that we are still perceiving a Sikh as a Muslim?" reader G. Singh emailed.

Likewise, reader Dolly Sidhu emailed: "The media has done it again. Showing Sikhs and talking about Muslims.  I am disappointed that people that write the stories are educated and knowledgeable, but they don't know the difference between Sikh and a Muslim."

Several others left similar comments on the post itself.

Web producer Alexandra Le Tellier was concerned about the comments and said, "We didn't intend to  offend anyone." And she explained the photo's selection. "The photo is from the opening of NYC's Islamic center, which is what the post is about, and the photo caption doesn’t misidentify the men as Muslim."

But that wasn't clear to readers.

Ultimately, Le Tellier updated the photo caption to read, "Members of the Sikh community attended the grand opening of the Park51 community center and mosque."

She also responded to each of the commenters with this note: "Thank you for your comment. We have updated our photo caption to identify the men in the above photograph as members of the Sikh community. We didn't intend to suggest they were Muslim; we simply selected a photo from the event discussed in the post. But we are sensitive to your concerns and appreciate that you shared them with us."

A memo on photo usage that was sent to the newsroom Thursday might have helped prevent the misunderstanding. The memo, signed by Managing Editor/Online Jimmy Orr, Deputy Managing Editor Colin Crawford and Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann, included a checklist of points to consider before running a photo, including:

Is the image directly related to the content of the story? Does it illustrate the story fairly and accurately? Are you sure it's not being taken out of context?

The photo from the Islamic center's opening was indeed directly related to the content of the story. But taken out of context -- viewed only in relation to the headline -- it could be misunderstood.

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Members of the Sikh community attended the grand opening of the Park51 community center and mosque on Sept. 21 in New York. Credit: Mario Tama / Getty Images.

The full photo guidelines follow:

Continue reading »

Propofol, the drug that killed Michael Jackson, isn't 'dangerous'


In this week’s coverage of the trial of Michael Jackson’s personal physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, articles have been consistent in describing the drug that killed the pop star:

Tuesday: “the dangerous surgical anesthetic propofol”

Wednesday: “a dangerous anesthetic”

Thursday: “a dangerous surgical anesthetic”

Friday: “the dangerous surgical anesthetic propofol”

But reader Jim Gould of Burbank disputed that characterization.

“Propofol is not ‘dangerous,’ as your reporters write, when it is used, as it is thousands of times every day, as an anesthetic agent in proper surgical settings!” Gould emailed.

Indeed, according to the RxList website and drugmaker AstraZeneca, propofol is approved for use in children as young as 2 months.

The key, of course, is in how the drug is used -- a point that Gould also made.

“This is emphatically not to say that Dr. Murray had any business using the excellent, safe anesthetic agent outside an appropriate surgical setting, as a ‘sleeping pill!’” he wrote.

Gould’s point is well-taken. “Powerful” might be a better description for future stories.

-- Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Deputy Dist. Atty. David Walgren holds a bottle of propofol in court Thursday during the trial of Dr. Conrad Murray. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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