Last spring, Kirstie Hettinga spent several months working two days a week as an unpaid intern at what she will only describe as “a small, regional newspaper in the Northeastern United States.” Yes, like many interns, she’s a student, but this was an unpaid internship of a different order.
Hettinga is a Ph.D candidate at Penn State, and a visiting assistant professor in media and communications studies at Ursinus College. Last year her doctoral committee at Penn State recommended she take on an internship to bolster her professional experience. Thus she joined the burgeoning ranks of unpaid media interns.
“I decided I didn’t just want to do an internship,” she told me. “I wanted to do a research paper as well.”
She presented the resulting paper a few weeks ago at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s 2011 conference.
For reasons of academic confidentiality, she can’t name the newspaper where she worked. Instead, in her paper she gives it the generic title of The Daily Express. It sounds like the local newspaper in Anytown, U.S.A. That’s kind of fitting because her paper, titled “Experiencing Error: How Journalists Describe What It’s Like When the Press Fails,” provides a snapshot of the common attitudes present in a typical American newsroom when it comes to errors, accuracy and corrections. The paper also highlights some of the challenges that newsrooms large and small face with the emergence of online publishing.
To gather her material, Hettinga interviewed some of her fellow journalists at the paper to learn about their experiences with error, how they dealt with mistakes, and what their general attitude is towards accuracy and corrections. Her paper quotes them under first-name only pseudonyms.
The most amazing piece of feedback she gathered came from Nathan, a 29 year-old reporter. Here’s how he described what he did after mixing up two people’s names in a story:
I actually drove out and I visited both the guys in person and apologized in person, rather than over the phone. I thought I owed them at least that. I thought that was the best thing I could do to the two of them, was to, give them the chance, if they wanted to, to punch me or whatever Well, you know, it’s the least I could do to them. It’s so I spent my morning driving around, apologizing. Which is not a very fun thing to do. You know. It’s pretty tough. So it’s part of my penance that I make myself do.
That stands out, but there are similar quotes in Hettinga’s paper. Several reporters or editors talked about how an error eats away at them. (Nathan actually compared it to being kicked by a mule. Yeah, this guy is awesome.)
Ross, a 37 year-old features reporter who has worked in journalism for a couple of decades, spoke about when he finishes work for the day and is “pulling out of the parking lot and I have a sudden panic attack that I’ve completely misspelled something or I’ve gotten something wrong or sometimes I just want to go back and change a word and I think reporters can identify with that ”
Harry, 28, the recently recently-promoted assistant news editor, talked of receiving calls at night from reporters asking him to recheck something in their copy.
Hettinga’s research provides some charming and relatable moments of journalists trying their best to get things right. And it shows committed professionals who are torn up inside when they make a mistake.
Of course, it’s not always that way. It never is. The act of reporting is a process that’s never finished and always threatens to go the wrong way. We know we will make mistakes.
Hettinga writes that when she asks a journalist if they’ve ever made a mistake, she usually gets the same reaction.
“This question was most commonly met with amusement, and occasionally laughter,” she said in her paper. “I interpreted this amusement as a kind of ‘well, of course’ attitude that implied that error was common.”
This is where the charming, quaint picture of the good people at The Daily Express starts to change. Everyone knows they will make errors, but the organization as a whole and many of the individuals don’t spend much time talking about prevention, or working on corrections. Some actively try to avoid fixing their mistakes.
Here’s one journalist talking about the fact that it’s pretty easy to bury an error at the paper: “If I wrote a story, and I screwed something up and nobody else noticed it, I don’t think I’d go out of my way to write a correction about it.”
Another said she felt the paper was too quick to offer corrections as a way to appease readers.