A recent mistake in a recent Washington Post article and the subsequent correction created a bit of a firestorm for the story’s reporter and writer. The correction of an article about Public Enemy spread quickly across the Internet, and the writer ended up taking the heat.
But it was a case of what happens very often in the news business. Someone other than the by-lined writer on an article made the mistake. The headline is wrong. A copy editor made a mistake. But those people do not have their names on the article.
For example, a copy editor changed 9/11 in a story a colleague wrote at an old job. But when he changed the date, he put Sept. 11, 2002, not Sept. 11, 2001. My colleague was the one who felt like she looked bad. There was a story I wrote about an upcoming public hearing about power lines. The article had the right date, but the headline referenced the wrong date. I fielded phone calls and emails from people wanting to know what was right. I didn’t write the headline, but my name was there so people called me.
The article from the Post’s Ombudsman Blog about the Public Enemy correction states how the newspaper as a whole takes the blame. Not one person is assigned blame. But so often reporters and writers are the ones who are taking the heat for mistakes others make, and this particular story shows how much of a problem it can become in today’s media world on the Internet.
Andrew Alexander further writes how Akeya Dickson, the article’s author, wanted to write a first-person piece about becoming the center of media attention because of the correction. She was denied.
The problem is most people don’t understand the layers of editing and pagination and more editing that happen between the reporter’s desk and when the printed copy lands on the newsstand or on the Web. A reporter files a story with an editor. The editor does one review of the story. When that editor approves the story, a copy editor reviews and edits the story. Sometimes paginators then review the story a third time before placing it on the page, especially since they need to write a headline for the story. That’s a lot of places a mistake can be made.
In today’s age on the Internet and the scrutiny people give their news and the mistakes we journalists can make, it’s ever important to be transparent about the decisions we make. It’s also important to be transparent about how we make mistakes when we apologize for them. It’s not so much because someone needs to be blamed, but because of how someone can be discredited in their work. If someone does not appear to be authoritative on a subject, sources may not speak to them or readers may not read.
The fact that I am the one who edits and posts the articles on M-SH Patch, most often my own stories, it’s easy for me to be transparent when I screw something up. I post an editor’s note. I post a comment. I talk to readers about it. Because I’m in the community, it’s easy to talk about our mistakes, although they are few. Most often they are perceived mistakes, in fact, and more of an issue of “what I said is not what I meant.”
I had a funny conversation, though, about an article that had an error. A freelancer had covered a meeting and inaccurately reported something. The business administrator, who rarely comments on anything we publish, called me at least a week later. He was concerned because of the things he was hearing at Town Hall (the information in question had to do with salaries). “Oh I didn’t cover that meeting,” I said to him. “That’s what happened,” he said, referring to how my work is normally accurate. We hashed out the correction over the phone and I posted it. Problem solved.