When news organizations correct errors, we should not mislead readers.
That sounds like an obvious statement, but it’s actually the topic of a debate on Twitter that I’ve joined today. I should preface this by noting that the people I’m arguing this topic with are friends and outstanding journalists whom I respect. But they are wrong about this.
Here’s the situation: When newspapers (and perhaps other news organizations) correct errors, we tend not to place blame. But when an editor adds an error to a reporter’s story, the correction misleads, implying to any readers who read bylines that the reporter erred. The correction is also misleading to sources, who usually know who the writer was and regularly make decisions about whether and how much to trust reporters.
On its surface, this feels like a journalists’ argument about how many angels (or perhaps devils, in this case) can dance on the head of a pin. Good friends have dismissed my suggestion on Twitter today as “finger-pointing.”
But when you take a phone call from an angry son whose living father was identified by an editor’s insertion into your story as “the late,” you see that this is not a trivial matter and it’s not about finger-pointing. It’s about accuracy. And responsibility. And accountability.
I’ll stipulate up front here, as I did on Twitter today, that editors have saved me more than they have added errors to my stories (I related one such story in a post about copy editors, and credited the editor):
— Steve Buttry (@stevebuttry) June 2, 2014
Regarding finger-pointing, I’ll also add that I don’t actually favor identifying the editor at fault. I think it’s sufficient to absolve the person whose name was on the story of responsibility for errors that were someone else’s fault. If you want to say “due to a reporter’s error” in other corrections, that’s fine, but I think that goes without saying if you don’t say it’s an editing error.
Errors were rare in my stories in my reporting days (and in my editing days). My colleagues — editors and reporters — and I worked hard to make our stories accurate and it was a big deal when our verification efforts failed. Errors are and should be rare, and they are all serious, regardless of who made them. Update: Please read Martin Langeveld’s comment below and my response on the point of how rare errors are.
Here’s why I’m writing about all this: Toronto Star Public Editor Kathy English blogged about the Star’s corrections policy:
Corrections published in the Toronto Star never tell you the whole story about how an error occurred and who caused the mistake.While we most always know these facts, having put some effort into seeking to understand what went wrong, long-standing Star policy decrees that our corrections don’t include such information. As the corrections policy states: “Publishing the Star is a team effort and published corrections do not ascribe blame within the Star.”That means that unlike some news organizations, the Star does not state “due to an editing error” when an editor adds a mistake to a reporter’s work.
Andrew Beaujon of Poynter wrote about Kathy’s post and the issues she raised. This is a common but not universal newsroom practice. I don’t know if it’s been the practice everywhere I’ve been, but I’d guess it’s been the practice more often than not. I do remember a newsroom that did specify whether an error was made by a reporter or the editor.
The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre, one of the best editors and most clever writers in the business, took issue with Kathy’s suggestion that the Star should be more transparent in its corrections:
But if Ms. English wants greater transparency at the paper, let’s look at what transparency might do to that polite fiction, the byline.
Reporter A gets a tip from fellow reporter B, makes several telephone calls and drafts an article that includes several paragraphs of background information taken verbatim from a previously published article by reporter C. Assigning editor D goes over the article, rewriting the opening paragraph and reorganizing several paragraphs in the body. Supervising editor E. takes the story, recasts the opening paragraph again and makes further changes in the text, in some cases reversing edits by D. When E moves the story to the copy desk, copy editor F corrects the spelling of names and makes a number of adjustments in the grammar and usage. F moves the story to the slot, where slot editor G removes a cliche from that opening paragraph and smooths out a number of other infelicities. Then supervising editor H, who has only just looked at the story, takes it back for further revisions, which then have to be checked by F and G. G prints out a page proof, and copy editor I, reading proof, suggests further changes, some of which G accepts.
Transparency demands that A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, and I get credit for their work, leading to a list of credits at the end of the story so long that some of the text has to be cut so the story will fit on the page. There is, however, a link to the article online, where the reader can consult a variorum edition, from A’s ur-text to the final published version, and choose the one he or she prefers.
The next day, a reader complains about an obvious and egregious error in the article that no one from A to I noticed.
Whom do you identify as responsible in the correction?
John had a little fun there and described more layers of editing than most newsrooms have these days (sadly), and more layers of collaboration than most stories involve, though I’ve done everything described there (except for lifting multiple paragraphs verbatim from another reporter’s story).
But here are some facts that are true of virtually every story:
- One person, the one with the byline, is primarily responsible for the accuracy of the story.
- The person with the byline generally does the vast majority of the work on the story. Except for stories where I shared a byline, I was always responsible for 90 percent or more of the information and wording of every story I wrote as a reporter. And, despite the heavy rewriting I did as an editor on many stories, and despite catching many errors by reporters, I never was under any illusion that the story wasn’t still primarily the reporter’s work.
- And most complaints about accuracy come to the reporter (though I received a few as a top editor and occasional complaints on the city desk).
The situation at the Toronto Star was one where a reporter took public criticism for an editor’s error. An editor had inserted the word sarcastic into a story about a politician’s statement (which was actually sincere), and the reporter, whose name was on the story, took public criticism on Twitter for the mistake. That fact negates the point that John Robinson made in the Twitter discussion:
— John Robinson (@johnrobinson) June 2, 2014
That used to be true (but 99% might be an exaggeration). I remember times when my own sons asked me if I’d read such-and-such story in the paper and they were talking about stories I wrote. They didn’t even notice their own last name on the tops of the stories.
But, as the Toronto incident illustrates, reporters are more identifiable now than they used to be, because of blogs and social media that are more readily tied to a single journalist. (Columnists were always identifiable.)
Another important point, though, is that sources know who wrote stories. Corrections that leave a writer hanging out there for someone else’s error hurt the reporter with his or her sources.
Back to the person one of my editors killed off (and I won’t name the newspaper, to avoid pointing fingers, and I won’t name the copy editor because he or she was never identified to me and never apologized): I was covering a high-profile criminal case involving a member of a prominent family in the community where I lived. I had been unsuccessful at that point in getting an interview with the defendant or any of her family, but I was hopeful that, perhaps after her sentencing, I might get a jailhouse interview or maybe get a chance to sit down with some relatives.
In one of the stories, it was relevant to mention a family member who had formerly been prominent in the community, so I did. When the story came out, the words “the late” were inserted in front of the person’s name. The story I later heard (not from the person who did it) was that a copy editor — again, I don’t know who — asked another copy editor, “Isn’t So And So dead?” and the other copy editor replied, “Yes, I think so.” Here’s where the tale should say one or both of two things:
- The copy editor called me at home to ask if the individual was dead, and I would have said no.
- The copy editor would have checked our library and found no obituary for this prominent person, whose death surely would merit a news story as well as an obituary.
Neither of those things happened. The editor just changed my story based on a colleague’s “I think so.” For all those mistakes that copy editors caught during my career, the most egregious error ever to appear under my byline was not my fault.
The truth was that this prominent person had retired and disappeared from public life and had dementia. I knew about the retirement and low profile, but not the dementia. I learned that from the furious son who called me and chewed my ass for this unforgivable mistake. And our correction didn’t say, “due to an editing error.” And I never got that jailhouse interview or any interviews with family members of the person caught in the scandal. My one conversation with the family was a long string of apologies when the son paused for breath.
And because I knew the correction would be misleading (my wife had spotted the error, so I had already discussed the correction with editors), I had one of two unpleasant choices:
- Fall on the sword and lie that I had made the mistake, which would undercut my credibility forever with that family (but maybe get me a little bit of credit for taking responsibility).
- Blame an unnamed editor, but with little credibility because my own paper wouldn’t stand behind my personal credibility. And besides, I’d look like I was pointing fingers.
I think I pointed fingers. I don’t remember that as much as I remember my fury at my colleague for making such an unprofessional mistake and at my editors for refusing to have my back.
Reporters have to take a lot of crap from sources and from readers (despite John’s point about not reading bylines, even back in the day, lots of readers read my name and called me with complaints and tips). Most times the reporters deserve the flak or accept it good-naturedly as part of the job. Reporters even accept flak for bad headlines that they never wrote (or for good headlines that sources just didn’t like). But newsrooms should not mislead sources or readers into thinking that a reporter was responsible for an error that someone else committed.
We would not accept reporting about failures of another powerful institution in town that mislead the public on the question of responsibility. And we might fire or at least discipline anyone who knowingly misled a source about some other matter.
Here’s the bottom line: You can’t think of another single instance where it would be acceptable in journalism to mislead even a few people in the public about a question of responsibility anywhere else in the community. It’s our job to expose those cover-ups. So why is it acceptable to knowingly mislead the public and your sources about the credibility of your reporters?
And a final point: I don’t advocate ever blaming sources for errors. Craig Silverman was quoted in the Poynter piece as saying that some newsrooms note when a source provided erroneous information but not when an editor added erroneous information.
Reporters, not our sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories. Our job is to verify the information we gather. Sources give us inaccurate information all the time: because they are lying, because they are just guessing, because they were honestly mistaken, because they misunderstood our questions and probably for a hundred other reasons. The reporter’s job is to verify facts and when we fail to do that, we shouldn’t blame sources, whatever their reason.
Update: I changed the original headline on this post, which said that corrections should “never” be misleading. I try never to say never. I can imagine some cases where the potential of a lawsuit might result in an obfuscated correction that could be accurate but misleading. So I changed “never” to “not.” But I’d probably argue against a misleading correction in those cases, too.
Another update: John McIntyre has blogged about this again. He sort of softened his opposition to what he calls “finger-pointing” in corrections (if you can point fingers without actually naming a person). As I noted in a comment on the post, he doesn’t address my central point: that we shouldn’t mislead. He uses the “who cares?” argument, which I take as pretty much conceding that he’s wrong. Because I already explained who cares. The readers of the Toronto Star cared in an actual case last week. And the family of the man an editor killed in my story sure as hell cared. You can’t justify misleading, John. Time to give this one up and side with accuracy.