Truth or Consequences

“We need more journalists who will bleed over their mistakes”

Henry Allen should not have punched Washington Post colleague Manuel Roig-Franzia in the face in the newsroom last week. That’s not constructive behavior. But I salute the man’s passion for accuracy.

The Washington City Paper’s detailed report of the fisticuffs suggests Allen went after Roig-Franzia in part because of factual errors contained in a charticle produced by Roig-Franzia and a colleague. The fact that Allen was deemed a “cocksucker” by his colleague after calling the piece the “second-worst piece I’ve ever had handed to me in 43 years” was probably the last straw. But accuracy was a factor in the dustup—and I have to admit I love that.

As Phil Record, then the ombudsman at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, wrote in 1997, “We need more journalists who will bleed over their mistakes and who are willing to make amends.”

Okay, no need to take that literally. But there’s a lesson in the great Post punch-up of ‘09: errors should have consequences. The difficulty comes in determining what they should be at any given time.

We can probably all agree that punching someone in the face is not the best remedy. So what if a reporter or editor had to call and apologize to the affected party whenever they misspelled a name? Or if there was a running tally posted in the newsroom showing each reporter’s errors for the month? I’m aware of newsrooms that have done both, but I can think of other ones that would view these practices as inappropriate.

The phone calls were a policy years ago at the Bucks County, Pa. Courier Times, according to a Newspaper Credibility Handbook published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2001.

“When a name is misspelled by a reporter, copy editor, photographer, the staffer responsible must call the individual and apologize,” Pat Walker, the paper’s executive editor at the time, said. “This is a bit humbling to the staff member but hopefully reinforces the need for accuracy. It also is received positively from the individual who has been affected.”

The paper also rewarded staff when the number of errors dipped to a new low in a given month. Choosing when to offer a carrot and when to wield the stick is difficult. Certainly, punishment becomes necessary after repeat offenses. But training is the best option if you actually want someone to improve. The bottom line is that a lot of different news organizations have tried a lot of different things, and there’s no consensus on the best way to discipline people as a result of errors.

The New York Times dealt with the Alessandra Stanley/Walter Cronkite fiasco earlier this year by reassigning a copy editor to give Stanley’s work special attention. In terms of consequences, she had to endure story after story that lambasted her work. (I was responsible for two critical columns in this publication.)

The Times doesn’t make public disciplinary action taken against its employees, so we don’t know if she suffered other, internal consequences. Of course, some errors are so egregious, and so well publicized, that consequences are inevitable. For example, Dan Rather felt his punishment for the flawed 60 Minutes II story about President Bush’s National Guard record was unduly harsh.
A lot of reporters consider corrections to be a consequence, but they’re really just a part of doing business. If you’re a barista and you spill coffee, you get a rag and clean it up. But if you keep spilling coffee, and perhaps break a mugs in the process, you could be asked to pay for the losses. The issue is less clear with broken reporting.

News organizations also have to be careful about handing out punishment. Union contracts are often very specific about the kind of disciplinary action available to an organization, and a grievance can be filed if someone feels they are being unfairly punished.

It seems that, in many newsrooms, the reaction to the complexity of this issue is to avoid it altogether.

That, too, has consequences.

Correction of the Week

“In a story on Page 3-A of Wednesday’s Independent about the Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Trail of Terror haunted house, a reaction to strobe lights should have included the word “freaking.” The word was replaced with asterisks, perhaps causing confusion about what was actually said. The Independent apologizes for this confusion and the impression it left.” — The Grand Island Independent

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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.