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May 24, 2005

Adventures in Journalism: The Mythic "Blue Hummingbird"

A blue hummingbird flies near a flower in a park in New Delhi on Thursday. There are more than 2000 species of birds in the vast Indian subcontinent. Until 1991, India was one of the largest exporters of wild birds to international bird markets — Reuters

Two years ago, in response to that caption and this picture, I penned this missive to Reuters.

"You know, I can forgive Reuters the little things, like their bias, slanted reporting and Anti-Semitism.

But a man can only be pushed so far, can only take so much before he has to stand up and be counted, to raise his voice and join the chorus of excoriation.

I am that man. This is that time.

And this is what I have to say to Reuters;

Hummingbirds only occur in the western hemisphere, you dolts."

Has Reuters learned anything in the years subsequent?

Hell no.

A blue hummingbird sits near a flower in a park on the outskirts of New Delhi May 12, 2005. There are more than 2,000 species of birds in the vast Indian sub-continent. Until 1991, India was one of the largest exporters of wild birds to international bird markets. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore

I hope whoever rewrote the caption charged Reuters for a whole days work. It's obviously a laboring away in the salt mines environment there.

Now, just to reiterate, here's what the fine people at wwfindia have to say about hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are only found in the Americas, from southern Canada and Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, including the West Indies. The Black-chinned Hummingbird is the most common species in the western United States and Canada. Only the Ruby-throated Hummingbird breeds in eastern North America, but occasional members of other hummingbird species ("accidentals" in birding jargon) are seen in the east of North America, sometimes as vagrants from Cuba or the Bahamas.

.....only found in the Americas.
only found in the Americas


Reuters: Chock full of idiots.

As I have noted, once or twice before;

Sweating the small stuff is the essence of reporting. I can't count the number of times I've had a post turn ninety degrees in my head due to a single fact check that didn't turn up the expected result, becoming something else entirely.

Other times a post has turned because simple curiosity led me down a path I didn't expect, usually due to an attempt to illuminate some dark corner only distantly related to the theme at hand.

Both of the above boil down to two principles.

1. Fact check everything.

2. Know your story

If the principles sound journalistic, it's because they are. Any blogger that has every attempted to do anything beyond diary entries or rants is a journalist, they're just not getting paid to be one.

It's not that I always adhere to the above rules, but I try to keep them in mind. It's also been my experience that each and every time I slap something together that violates or ignores one of the above, I get corrected by a reader.

And each and every time, I curse like a sailor. I frigging hate being corrected.

Now imagine what the curses would sound like if I was getting paid to do this. When nothing is on the line other than my somewhat shaky reputation, it's annoying but no big deal. If my job was on the line, corrections would be a much bigger deal.

Now, given that, why do the news services keep producing mistakes?

The answer seems obvious to me; journalistic mistakes, even ones that end up killing people, normally carry no consequences whatsoever for those who commit them, so they continue to happen. Obviously whatever dolt is in charge of the nature photographs at Reuters has blissfully continued his drunken stumble down the career path over the last two years without consequence, save that, for me, at least, every story with a Reuters byline goes into a mental trash bin. Reuters does not care enough to get the details straight, so there's no point in trusting in anything their stories say.

Postscript: For those who care about such things, the bird Reuters mistakenly insists is a blue hummingbird is most likely a Purple Sunbird. What it's not, what it can never be, even in the fevered imagination of a senior Reuters editor, is a "blue hummingbird," not even if they moved the location of the picture to the correct hemisphere. There's no such beast.

PPS: Those who found the above diverting may wish to peruse an earlier Adventure in Journalism; Show Us Your Tits!

Posted by Bigwig at May 24, 2005 01:11 PM | TrackBack
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Maybe Columbus was doing their reporting, so while he was in america taking pics of hummingbirds, he really thought he had reached india?

Posted by: Dustin at May 24, 2005 01:50 PM

LOL. Your post cheered me up after days of depressing Koran flushing.

Maybe it was the west in West Indies that confused al-Reuters.

Posted by: Retread at May 24, 2005 01:51 PM

One would expect the person in charge of photographs at Reuters would have at least a passing knowledge of the subjects of those photographs. I'm not a bird expert and I can tell by looking that's not a hummingbird.

So how did a schmuck like that get his job? Being the editor's cousin or something?

Posted by: Anne Haight at May 24, 2005 02:20 PM

"Maybe Columbus was doing their reporting, so while he was in america taking pics of hummingbirds, he really thought he had reached india?"

Love it! Thanks for the day-brightening bit of humor.

Posted by: Tim at May 24, 2005 02:21 PM

Funny, how it’s not the big lies that destroy your confidence in a source of information, but the little inaccuracies and errors. An Army First Sergeant explained to me in exquisitely sensitive particulars the importance of attention to detail, when he gig’ed me for misaligned rank insignia (or somesuch) during a barracks inspection when I was a young PFC.

“If you can’t f***ing get the f***ing little f***ing things g** d*** right, you stupid f***, then how in the f*** do you f***ing expect mother f***ers like me to trust f***ing dumb f***s like you, on the big f***ing s***?”

Come to think of it, that might have been any one of a dozen exchanges I had with senior noncoms when I was a junior enlisted soldier. They all sort of run together, for some unknown reason.

Still, truer words were never spoken, not even by men who knew more than 10 words, 4 of them not profane.

Posted by: Blackavar at May 24, 2005 02:34 PM

BWAHAHAHAHAHA....I think I had that First Sergeant too!.

I think the best compliment I ever got from a superior officer was "You make mistakes, but you don't make the same mistake twice".

Reuters should learn from that.

Posted by: Eric Blair at May 24, 2005 02:44 PM

The Blue Hummingbird is a close relative of the Plastic Turkey. Both species are commonly found in the exotic habitats once known as "newsrooms" - clustered in and around Times Square in New York City. The habitat, having been whittled down to a few floors of a few high rises, is in danger of disappearing altogether unless radical conservation measures are taken, and soon.

Posted by: Long Memory at May 24, 2005 02:49 PM

Just as the sun comes up in the east, every spring some copy editor at a North Carolina paper will write a cutline of a photo of Bradford pear trees in bloom and call them dogwoods. I had to drum this into editors year after year after year. Problem was, each year you had a new Yankee on the desk that didn't know better.

Posted by: rivlax at May 24, 2005 02:58 PM

I dunno... the way it's written here, Hraka is the one who told Reuters that the bird was a hummingbird. I have to imagine Reuters then updated their photo file to note it was a hummer, but at the same time (since it isn't a hummer)it's still a bird of India. That means Hraka TRICKED Reuters into calling it a hummingbird! Nicely done.

Posted by: Jim at May 24, 2005 03:47 PM

You deserve a trip to Costa Rica-maybe you can get Reuters to pay for it and act as their guide.

A hummer in other hemispheres-is illegal according to the Koran.

Allah has spoken.

Posted by: madawaskan at May 24, 2005 04:52 PM

uh rooters is just up on humjobs, not birds.

Posted by: bubba at May 24, 2005 10:35 PM

Here in the Texas Hill Country we have a surfeit of hummingbirds, mostly black chinned, with an occasional rufous, and seasonal ruby throats. However, in the spring of 2001, I had a rare broadbilled hummer at my feeder for over a week, which appeared to be an overall blueblack in color. I took photos, but didn't get a good closeup. I identified it by the brilliant red bill with a black tip, and its distinctive sound. It was very agressive toward other hummers. Your picture may well be of a broadbill.

Posted by: Erbel R. at May 25, 2005 12:11 PM
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