Total Recall

When a mere retraction just isn't enough

How bad does an error have to be to warrant the journalistic equivalent of a product recall?

In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune sent out the trucks to bring back copies of its famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” edition. I also know of one pulping that was done to save lives.

The latest journalistic recall happened this week thanks to a typo. The Daily Universe, a student paper at Brigham Young University, trashed its Monday edition after referring to a Mormon church body as the “Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostates” instead of the “Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.”

The paper issued an apology and recalled all 18,000 copies of the paper. The mistake was definitely awful and embarrassing, but most professional publishers wouldn’t have seen it as cause for a recall. This pulping occurred largely because the administration at BYU didn’t want to offend the Mormon church.

“We are reprinting the paper and we will have the corrected version back on the racks by mid-afternoon,” said Brad Rawlins, chair of BYU’s department of communications, in a university story about the pulping. “This shows the deep concern we have on the matter. We don’t think this error is glib or cute or humorous. We understand people will take offense to the error. We ourselves are offended as a department for this error. We have a deep regret that it appeared in today’s paper.”

The paper’s editorial manager explained how the mistake occurred:

“Our copy editor in charge of the front page, who was under deadline pressure, was using spell check on her page and had misspelled the word apostle,” Evans said. “One of the first options that came up on InDesign’s spell check suggestions was the word apostate. Unfortunately that’s the one she clicked on. It still should have been caught by two more levels of review after that, but again with deadline looming, the worst possible thing happened.”

To put the BYU pulping in perspective, consider what caused Newsweek to recall an issue in 1997.

When the magazine developed its special “Your Child” issue that year, the idea was to offer readers advice and information about raising children. Unfortunately, one article suggested that infants could safely feed themselves zwiebacks and chunks of raw carrot. This advice was not only incorrect but, if followed, could have resulted in a fatal choking incident. The magazine recalled several hundred thousand copies and rushed corrected versions to newsstands, hospitals, and doctors’ offices. It also published a correction:

…A chart entitled “Building Healthy Habits” on page 58 contained a serious error. Five-month-old babies should not be fed zwiebacks or raw carrot chunks. Though many infants are ready to try pureed solids between 4 to 6 months, raw carrots and other hard foods could cause choking.

“We are very sorry about this mistake,” Newsweek editor-in-chief and president Richard M. Smith said at the time. “And we are taking extraordinary measures to correct it.” (Notably, the magazine had gotten rid of its fact checkers the year before.)

In 2005, the U.K.’s Sunday Mirror trashed an estimated 150,000 copies after it misidentified a man as a convicted rapist who had won £7m in the lottery. From a Guardian article about the error:

In the scoop-hungry world of the Sunday tabloids, a picture of Iorworth Hoare - better known in the trade as the “Lotto rapist” - inspecting £500,000 yachts in a seaside resort, seemed a momentous coup…

On the loose” screamed the front-page story, which was tagged - inevitably in the circumstances - “World Exclusive.”

The only difficulty was the fact that the man displayed was not the “Lotto rapist” at all, a conclusion only reached by the newspaper’s executives after they had printed between 140,000 and 150,000 copies of yesterday’s edition. They do not know who the misidentified man is, only that he is not who they supposed him to be.

Amid frantic scenes at the paper’s Canary Wharf headquarters, decisions were made to stop the presses and to halt the distribution of copies already printed. They were to be pulped.

Worried that the image might incite some to pursue vigilante justice against the notorious criminal, the paper stopped the presses and sent people on motorbikes to buy back copies from newsstands.

Editorial copy isn’t the only potential cause for a recall. Also in 2005, 200,000 copies of YM Your Prom magazine were pulled from newsstands after two ads for prom dresses mistakenly directed readers to a child porn website. (Over 400,000 copies of the magazine had already been sold.) Yet the exact same ads also appeared in Hearst’s Teen Prom, and the publisher chose to leave them on shelves.

So which publisher was the apostate in that scenario?

Correction of the Week

“In ‘The entourage’ section of ‘UK clears its decks for the Obama show’ (News, last week), we said representatives of ‘the Immigration and Naturalisation Service’ (INS) and ‘the US Information Agency’ (USIA) would accompany President Obama on his European tour. The USIA was closed in October 1999 when its information functions were incorporated into the State Department and its broadcasting services consolidated into the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The INS ceased to exist in March 2003 with most of its functions transferring to the Department of Homeland Security.” – The Observer U.K.

All The Governor’s Men

“A page-one headline in yesterday’s Herald that characterized four people who landed high-paying agency posts as ‘pals’ of Gov. Patrick should have described them as staffers in his administration.” – Boston Herald

Parting Shot

“The Canadian Press moved a story April 3 that erroneously reported The Wilkins Ice Shelf was originally part of Jamaica. In fact the Ice Shelf, located on the western side of the Antarctic was originally the size of Jamaica.” – Canadian Press

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