Thursday, October 16, 2008

To Err ...

To Err …

“To err is human. To forgive, divine.” That proverb is now part of our everyday language, but is it the norm in everyday journalism? Perhaps even when penned by English poet and satirist Alexander Pope in his “An Essay on Criticism” published in 1711, it was more tongue-in-cheek than truth. I didn’t read all of the poem. I admit it. But, check out the opening couplets:

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.

American early 20th century journalist Franklin P. Adams (AKA “FPA”) comes closer to the truth:

“To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.”

All of this is to set up a conversation I had with a friend at the Austin American-Statesman regarding corrections to their copy. In an earlier blog I alluded to “… Daily newspapers that daily have a ‘corrections column.’ What’s up with that?”

“Yeah, newspapers do have too many corrections. It's embarrassing, and let me tell you, reporters hate to make the Walk of Shame over to their editors and explain how something got screwed up,” said Andrea Ball, philanthropy editor at the American-Statesman.

In all fairness, daily newspapers cover a lot of territory, and these days they, like many of their colleagues in other news media, are forced to do more with less, leading to occasional errors. Further, Ms. Ball points out some errors appear in print in spite of their best efforts. “Even when it's not our fault (like we got the wrong info from someone), we feel like total losers.” Law enforcement often changes names of victims and suspects after a deadline passes. Or, a public information person will call after deadline with a different title for someone quoted in a story. Stuff like that. Thus, the next day, the newspaper puts these items in the “corrections column”. It is the right thing to do. “However, we don't make any more mistakes than TV reporters do. It's just that we actually have to own up to them -- in print.” Ms. Ball said.

Printed media has a problem. It hangs around for days, even weeks. People can read it and re-read it. In broadcasting a story is run and it is gone. Sure, you can get a copy of it. But, for the most part, only the available audience for that particular newscast may or may not see and/or hear a story. They cannot go back and re-read it. A viewer or listener may ask himself, “Did I really hear that?” Then, their brain may make the correction for them, and they move on. For those people directly connected to the story, however, they care if the media gets it right.

If not from a legal point of view, from an ethical point of view, the media should correct its errors. The American-Statesman, therefore, is to be congratulated for being up front about it, putting the “corrections column” inside Page One. Broadcast media are told by their lawyers to run corrections in the context of when it aired the first time.

Ms. Ball wondered if broadcast media really run corrections and if I remembered any. The fact is that the opportunity for error in broadcast news is less, simply because the medium covers far fewer stories with a smaller staff. But, the answers to her questions are yes and yes. I never had to write one for a story that I wrote. I covered crime, a beat where libel lurked around every corner. I was very, very careful. As a managing editor, however, I wrote several. Here is the disingenuous part: Often times, broadcasters will use a different term. It is not a “correction”; it is a “clarification”. And, the copy might read, “We have a clarification for you. Yesterday, we told you about blah, blah blah. What we should have said was blah, blah, blah. We regret any inconvenience this might have caused.” I think that approach is, well, wrong. And, I, er, admit that I have written or edited a few of those. And, I felt slimy afterward.

Some cannot be termed “clarifications”. They must be “corrections” or even “retractions” if the reporting showed a reckless disregard for the truth, especially when the story results in damages. These are stories where the facts are flat wrong, or someone is put in a false light, or there is misidentification. And, yes, I have seen these types of apologies on the air, worded very carefully and vetted by lawyers. After the damage is done, the retraction may possibly mitigate damages. Ouch.

But, these stories on TV and/or radio are barely noticed. It may be a matter of selective perception or selective exposure. Again, if the story is about you, you care. If it is not about you, you don’t care. You barely hear it.

You are right, Andrea. Viewers do not see some corrections at all. Those affected by the story realize that a correction would require retelling the story. Sometimes people don’t want to revisit it. It was already confusing once. Retelling it, they fear would compound the confusion. An “I’m sorry.” was good enough. The viewers didn’t see it, but one can be sure that their bosses did.

After all of this, here is the bottom line: We have a responsibility as journalists to get it right. Call it attention to detail. It is what we were taught hopefully in school. Most of the time, all journalists print, Internet and broadcast DO get it right. Those who don’t get it right also don’t last long.

“To err is human; to forgive, infrequent.”

© Jim McNabb


Ray Niekamp said...

Hope you've been doing research on how to build blog audiences. You've got good stuff here, and it deserves to be widely read.

Jake said...

Memo to thee who hath erred:

#1 - The phrase, "'liable' lurked around every corner," should have read, "'libel' lurked around every corner." Doohhh!

#2 - The phrase, "a reckless regard for the truth," should have read, a reckless disregard for the truth."

#3 - The phrase, "especially when results in damage," should have read, "especially when it results in damages."

While it is true that these errors do not rise to the level of a shattering of the Earth, it is also true that, "After all of this, here is the bottom line: We have a responsibility as journalists to get it right. Call it attention to detail."

Remember, "Those who don’t get it right also don’t last long."

Meanhile, please know that "To err is human;" I forgive you.