Correct the Errors: Bernie Sanders Life in Vermont

Last week, I discussed the VT Digger's recent article on Bernie Sanders' early days in Vermont and his journey into politics. In this article, reporters, Jess Wisloski and Anne Galloway, addressed the unexplained period of Sanders' life following his college graduation in 1964 from the University of Chicago. They discredited the accuracy of three national news organizations that provided incorrect dates and facts to this period in the future presidential candidate's life.

Since this week's assignment involves correcting an error, I set out to notify the New York Times, Mother Jones, and the National Journal of their inaccuracies. However in checking VT Digger's referenced links to those national articles, I also found something surprising.

The VT Digger states that New York Times claimed that Sanders moved to Burlington in the late 1960s. When I checked this in the New York Times, it was stated that Sanders' arrived in Vermont in the late 1960s, but not in Burlington. In fact, it wasn't made specific where he first arrived.

Hm. Slight change of plans.

Here is who I ended up reaching out to and about what:

  • VT Digger for the claim that the New York Times pegged Sanders' arriving in Burlington, when in fact, it wasn't made explicit.
  • New York Times and the National Journal citing Sanders' having arrived in Vermont in the 'late 1960s' / 1968, when VT Digger gives the precise year: 1964.
  • National Journal for citing Sanders' brief move to New York City in 1964 directly after graduation from University of Chicago, when VT Digger claims it as false.

This all raised a few questions for me and thinking about ethics in journalism. What happens from a reader perspective when claims are stretched and facts are wrong from many angles?

Who knows the truth to all of this? Sanders himself could correct it all very quickly. Though, these are small facts about his private life five decades ago, not his political beliefs or professional career. I doubt it should take any level of importance for him and his staff unless of course the race progresses and more attention turns to scrutinize his personal past.

To report on presidential candidates must be difficult. There is so much interest in a candidate's personal life, but how do you as a journalist maintain your primary role of bearing witness when there is little information provided? Does the reporting slowly morph into sensationalism? It's difficult to back up an opinion on any candidate because the information in the news is widely regarded as sensational. Websites like Politifact help debunk lies on the internet and affirm factual quotes. And engagement from readers play an important role too. When I first realized my confusion over VT Digger's claim, I read through the comments and noticed someone else found it 'hazy' as well.

What VT Digger does well, and most well-regarded news organizations do today, is respond to reader engagement. Questionable facts and claims are bound to surface in journalism and do all the time. Knowing that organizations like VT Digger respond and clarify truly support two guiding principles in ethical journalism, transparency and community. Acknowledging when you're wrong and engaging the community has likely improved in journalism, thanks to technology and ease of finding information today.

I'll update this post if I hear anything back. A side experiment I'm doing here in this assignment is reaching out to the journalists via email first. If I don't get a response in a week, I'll turn to social media or the comments sections to voice my opinion/thoughts mentioned above.

Stay tuned!


Emily Turner1 Comment