Lessons Learned from “Wafergate”

When bad editing happens to good reporters

People are calling it Wafergate, which makes it sound silly. But underlying this story is a major mistake by a newspaper, and a common problem faced by reporters and editors.

First, the wafer: In early July, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper traveled to New Brunswick to attend the funeral of former Governor General Romeo LeBlanc. At the funeral, the prime minister was given communion. Video footage shows him accepting a wafer from the priest, but cuts away before anyone can see him eat it. Nobody thought much of this until the Telegraph-Journal, a New Brunswick paper, published a front page article claiming that the prime minister put the wafer, which represents the body of Christ, in his pocket. Then everyone piled on the story. Eventually, the prime minister and his spokesman issued strong denials.

Then, on Tuesday, the Telegraph-Journal published a front page apology acknowledging that the allegation regarding the pocketing of the wafer was inserted by an editor “without the knowledge of the reporters and without any credible support….” It apologized to the prime minister and to the two reporters whose bylines were on the article. The paper offered this explanation:

There was no credible support for these statements of fact at the time this article was published, nor is the Telegraph-Journal aware of any credible support for these statements now. Our reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras, who wrote the story reporting on the funeral, did not include these statements in the version of the story that they wrote. In the editing process, these statements were added without the knowledge of the reporters and without any credible support for them.

As remarkable as it is to see a front page apology in a newspaper, the most surprising part of the admission is the inclusion of the paper’s reporters as wronged parties. You almost never see a media outlet apologize to two of its employees. On the other hand, editors do cause errors by inserting new information into a story. Wafergate is an example of this, albeit one that resides at the far end of the spectrum.

Just as an editor will frequently save a reporter’s reputation by catching an embarrassing error, they can also cause harm by inserting mistakes. Most editors spend a lot more time eliminating errors than inserting them, but, as always, the mistakes attract more attention because they become public.

In the wake of the Wafergate apology, I put out a call on my Web site and Twitter to ask reporters if an editor had ever inserted an error in their work. I also asked editors what the policy is for inserting new information into a story. Do you check with the reporter? The responses to both questions was pretty much unanimous.

Anyone who spends enough time working as a reporter will inevitably fall victim to an error being inserted in their work. I received e-mails from several journalists, some of whom had horror stories of editors adding inaccurate headlines or multiple factual errors. And they pretty much all asked that I not quote or name them directly for fear of ruining future reporter-editor relationships.

At the same time, I heard from editors who were adamant that any new information or substantive changes should go back to the reporter.

“Our rule, and the rule at the three other newspapers I’ve worked at is this: Before you add information to a story, check with the reporter,” wrote John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in North Carolina, in an e-mail. “The two of you can determine whether the information is credible and should be added or if the reporter needs to go back to work and verify the information. If you cannot reach the reporter, the information must be verified by another person.”

I suspect this is the policy at just about every newspaper. But things break down when deadlines approach.

“In my experience, most times this happens because someone is in a rush, or they make an assumption and add it in without checking because they assume they know it,” says Andy Bechtel, a copy editor who teaches editing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As an example, he points to an incident at the Raleigh News & Observer, wherein an editor added details that resulted in the story describing someone watching a football game that never happened.

No doubt that editor felt horrible about the mistake. And on the other side of things, editors are sometimes unfairly accused of mangling copy. Last month, Kris DeRego, a student writer for the student newspaper at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, was accused of being a serial fabricator. How did he explain the litany of unverifiriable sources and other information in his work? By blaming the copy editors.

In a written statement to a local paper, he explained that his work was “adulterated during the copy (editing) process — a problem encountered by other staff members working at Ka Leo.”

John McIntyre, the former head of the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun, offered a nice summary of the error insertion issue on his blog:

It would be idle to pretend that copy editors do not make mistakes, even inserting errors into texts — I bear the scars of many such lapses myself. But I have also seen over the years how tempting it is for some reporters to condemn the copy desk before determining the facts. The human reflex to shift blame elsewhere, especially on a target group, is quite strong. Any number of times I have reported to work to take up the day’s fresh complaints, discovering frequently on examination that the reporter actually made the error, or the originating editor made the error, or even, on some occasions, that there was actually no error.

Which brings me back to the wafer. We know that an editor inserted the inaccurate information. But there’s so much we don’t know: who they are, why they did it, and whether they deliberately chose not to inform the reporters prior to publication. The apology has been made, but we’re still waiting for an explanation. The incident also brings to mind a final bit of advice offered by Robinson.

“The other rule that both editors and reporters are expected to follow is that old saw: ‘When in doubt leave it out’,” he wrote.

Correction of the Week

“‘Men of Israel’: In the Big Picture column in Monday’s Calendar, an item about the film ‘Men of Israel’ described Michael Lucas of New York-based Lucas Entertainment as a former porn actor whose company produces gay porn. A spokesman for Lucas says he still has an active career as a performer in the adult industry.” – Los Angeles Times

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.