In its most basic and useful form, a correction fixes erroneous reporting and provides a public admission for an error. Though it rarely tops 100 words, the correction, when properly deployed, can also be transformed into a weapon of mass reduction (as in ego).
Witness, for example, The Washington Post’s choice of words this week when >correcting a photo caption:
A photo caption in the Oct. 22 Style section incorrectly referred to Bill O’Reilly as a “right-wing pundit.” The Fox News host presents himself as an independent.
Yes, O’Reilly “presents” himself as an independent. Meaning: he’s not one. The Post is by no means the only news organization to deploy WMRs. The Australian delivered an enjoyable example in 2006 when an athlete lobbied the paper to correct a report about his boozing at a concert:
AN article in The Australian yesterday (“Tarrant caught out again as rock ’n’ roll lifestyle lingers”, page 31) said AFL footballer Chris Tarrant was “spotted at a Jet concert, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other”. This was incorrect. The Australian accepts that Tarrant was not at the Jet concert. As reported, Tarrant was out late and drinking the previous Saturday night.
It’s the correction equivalent of a frenemy apologizing for saying you look fat in those pants, and then whispering “but you really do.”
Another form of WMR is the pseudo-correction. This is when the correction format is used as a means to make a point, rather than correct any real factual error. In 2004, a race for a seat in the House of Representatives turned nasty when the National Republican Congressional Committee produced an ad that attacked the deceased father of Democratic candidate Don Barbieri. At the time, Barbieri’s Republican challenger, Cathy McMorris, stayed silent about the ad, causing a columnist with the Lewiston Morning Tribune to pen a biting pseudo-correction:
An Oct. 1 editorial referred to Washington state Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville as a “classy candidate.” This page regrets the error. — P.M.
Clever, but it has nothing on a pseudo-apology. This has been elevated to an art form by certain British newspapers, and no one does it better than The Sun. (Some quick accuracy math for you: the quality of a paper’s pseudo-apologies is directly proportional to its penchant for scandalously inaccurate reporting. Thus, The Sun’s dominance.) Here’s how the paper, uh, apologized to a member of England’s national soccer team during the 2006 World Cup:
SUNSPORT would like to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt SORRY to Owen Hargreaves.
Over recent weeks we might have given the impression we thought he was, well, rubbish.
But Owen proved against Portugal, with his all-action performance, that he was well worth his place.
Unlike soppy Sven [Goran Eriksson], we’re big enough to admit we got it wrong.
Sven Goran Eriksson, the team’s manager, eventually earned his own apology:
RECENT articles in this column may have given the impression that Mr Sven Goran Eriksson was a greedy, useless, incompetent fool. This was a misunderstanding. Mr Eriksson is in fact a footballing genius. We are happy to make this clear.
And another one two years later:
The Sun may have inadvertantly suggested that former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was a prize twerp in selecting Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup squad.
We now accept Mr Eriksson was ahead of his time and correctly recognised his ability. We wholeheartedly apologise.
Though pseudo-apologies are by far the most destructive of their ilk, the very existence of WMRs could make sources think twice before requesting a correction—or speaking to a specific media organization. That’s yet another thing journalists could find themselves having to apologize for.
Correction of the Week
“In a report published in The Sunday Age on 16 September 2007 entitled ‘Is it the end of the line for a legendary seabird? This is where ‘Operation Albatross’ comes in’, it was said that Mr Brothers invented a chute device which drowned endangered albatrosses and other deep diving sea birds. The Sunday Age acknowledges that Mr Brothers did not invent the chute device and that it does not drown these sea birds. The Sunday Age apologies to Mr Brothers for any hurt he has suffered.” – The Sunday Age
About a Boat
“In discussing allegations that George Osborne solicited a donation for Conservative party funds from Oleg Deripaska, Michael White’s blog (Osborne and the Russian billionaire, October 21) inadvertently referred to Lord Ashdown’s donations to the Tory party when he meant Lord Ashcroft’s. The former Liberal Democrat leader assures us he has made no such donations. He does not have a yacht. As far as he knows, nor do any of his friends.” – The Guardian
While following Sarah Palin on the campaign trail this week, Ana Marie Cox, former editor of Wonkette and currently a blogger for Time, offered what appears to be the first notable correction to a Twitter message. Her Tweet:
CORRECTION: Palin lauded those who “cook our food,” rather than eat it. Still, that means Mario Batali is a better American than you.