If you're in the news media, the rule is simple: Report the facts as neatly and carefully as possible.
When you come at an issue with the intention of embarrassing a person or an entity, chances are you're going to whiff and make a great, big ass of yourself like the New York Times did this week.
The New England Patriots visited the White House as guests of President Donald Trump. The team came to the people's house fresh off their triumphant, and unexpected, Super Bowl victory earlier this year against the Atlanta Falcons.
The president spoke, and 34 members of the team posed with him later for a group photo. Some Patriots skipped the ceremony for political reasons. The team's quarterback, Tom Brady, was also unable to attend, citing "personal family matters." He reportedly spent time with his mother, who has been fighting cancer for nearly 20 years.
Simple enough, really.
But then the New York Times' sports section decided it would get cute, and published a tweet contrasting the size of the group photo from 2017 to the size of the group photo from 2015, when Barack Obama was still president.
There's a lot of missing context in the above photos, according to the Patriots' official Twitter account, which had to do the work of fact-checking the Times.
First, the Patriots account tweeted this:
Thanks @realDonaldTrump & @WhiteHouse for the gracious hospitality today honoring the Super Bowl Champion New England #Patriots! pic.twitter.com/7AU8XsA5Xk— New England Patriots (@Patriots) April 20, 2017
Then it tweeted this clarifier, "These photos lack context. Facts: In 2015, over 40 football staff were on the stairs. In 2017, they were seated on the South Lawn."
Finally, the official account said this, "Comparable photos: The last time the #Patriots won two Super Bowls in three years, 36 players visited the White House. Today, we had 34."
Comparable photos: The last time the #Patriots won two Super Bowls in three years, 36 players visited the White House. Today, we had 34. pic.twitter.com/Aslvf1RaXU— New England Patriots (@Patriots) April 20, 2017
A few in the press, including Politico's Shane Goldmacher, tried to find the Times some wiggle room for its original erroneous tweet.
"Extra context: The Patriots are owned by Bob Kraft, a close friend of Trump's," he said on social media.
Okay, sure, but that doesn't change the fact that the Times had an embarrassing fumble in mispresenting the facts, which is the exact opposite of what the paper is supposed to do. Also, getting fact-checked in public by the people you're supposed to be covering is, generally speaking, a bad look.
The Times could have avoided this if it focused simply on covering the Patriots' White House visit, and avoiding the temptation to score some sort of slam-dunk gotcha on Trump, who is personally extremely self-conscious about crowd sizes and public perception.
Poking fun at the president may be fun, but it opens the door to sloppiness.