Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Russian Subs and Sloppy Reporting

You may have heard this morning that two Russian submarines have been tracked sailing in international waters far off the East Coast of the United States. Patrols like these were once common, but have been far less so since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, mostly because throughout the 1990’s the Russian Navy couldn’t afford to stage them.

Of course this isn’t stopping some commentators (notably those on Fox News) for asking if the Cold War is on again – ignoring the fact that the world’s larger navies routinely sail about in the ocean on maneuvers. One of the Russian subs is reported to currently be making a port call in Havana, Cuba.

The main reason though I’m even mentioning this is because of some sloppy reporting by Reuters (the source of the wire story I happened to read on the event). Reuters said the subs were identified as Akula-class boats and that ‘Akula’ was the NATO designation for this class of submarine (Akula is also Russian for “shark”). So far, so good. Reuters then goes on to say that the Russian designation for the Akula is “Nerpa”, which is totally wrong. The Soviet/Russian name for the Akula is “Shchuka” (Russian for “pike”, a type of fish); the Nerpa is a recently-built submarine in the Shchuka-class, but not the name for the entire line of subs (it also happened to suffer a malfunction of its fire fighting system during sea trials that killed 20 workers, a fact Reuters does get right).

Ok, so why the nit-picking? Because in journalism it’s important to get the facts right, this is especially important for a wire service like Reuters, whose stories will be picked up by possibly hundreds of news outlets and run, usually without the news outlets fact-checking the story on their own. And as my first journalism professor once explained, if you get the small details wrong then why should the reader believe you on the big ones?

I knew the class of submarines wasn’t called the Nerpa, it took me all of two minutes online to find a link confirming that fact. I’d expect that a huge organization like Reuters could at least do the same. As for what the Russian subs were doing off the coast in the first place, Russia is trying to finalize an agreement to lease the newly-finished Nerpa to the Indian Navy for about a billion rubles - nothing like a few mentions in the US media to help seal the deal.
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