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'NYT' Correction on Article, from Last December, To Appear This Sunday -- Nothing to 'Crow' About?

An extensive and unusual correction appears in The New York Times Magazine arriving this Sunday. One question that arises: Why did it take so long?

The correction reveals that a very short piece in the magazine's December 14, 2008, issue -- about experiment involving crows at the Binghamton (N.Y.) zoo -- was wildly inaccurate and exaggerated, and the newspaper's fact-checker failed to make essential inquiries. As usual it does not name the reporter, who was freelancer Claire Trageser.

It concludes that the discrepancies were pointed out to The Times by a Binghamton professor "several weeks after the article was published; this editors' note was delayed for additional reporting." Indeed, almost four months passed before the correction appears this Sunday. The full correction follows.*

An article in the Year in Ideas issue on Dec. 14, 2008, reported on Josh Klein, whose master's thesis for New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program proposed "a vending machine for crows" that would enable the birds to exchange coins for peanuts. The article reported that beginning in June 2008, Klein tested the machine at the Binghamton Zoo, that the crows learned how to use it and that after a month the crows were actually scouring the ground for loose change.

The Times has since learned that Klein was never at the Binghamton Zoo, and there were no crows on display there in June 2008. He performed these experiments with captive crows in a Brooklyn apartment; he told the reporter about the Brooklyn crows but implied that his work with them was preliminary to the work at the zoo. Asked to explain these discrepancies, Klein now says he and the reporter had a misunderstanding about the zoo.

The reporter never called the zoo in Binghamton to confirm. And while the fact-checker did discuss the details with Klein, he did not call the zoo, as required under The Times's fact-checking standards.

In addition, the article said that Klein was working with graduate students at Cornell University and Binghamton University to study how wild crows make use of his machine, which does exist. Klein did get a professor at Binghamton to help him try it out twice in Ithaca, with assistance from a Binghamton graduate student, and it was not a success. Corvid experts who have since been interviewed have said that Klein's machine is unlikely to work as intended.

These discrepancies were pointed out to The Times by the Binghamton professor several weeks after the article was published; this editors' note was delayed for additional reporting. These details should have been discovered during the reporting and editing process. Had that happened, the article would not have been published.

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Author:Mitchell, Greg
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Date:Apr 10, 2009
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