Roughly a year ago, The Washington Post embarked on what has become a seven-part investigative series about housing issues in D.C. The sixth installment examined the dispersal of $30 million earmarked to “rid the District of dangerous, dilapidated properties.”
The paper revealed that the fund, controlled by the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, suffered from “haphazard oversight and record-keeping.” As a result, it was “difficult to track what projects were ordered, whether the city paid a fair price, or how much work was done.”
This past Sunday, the paper published yet another story about a lack of oversight and failure of accountability at an important institution. The guilty party? The Washington Post.
Andrew Alexander, the paper’s ombudsman, used his column to detail the failure of the paper’s corrections process. Requests for corrections languished for years without a reply. Editors and reporters weren’t sure who was supposed to be minding the store. Corrections weren’t printed. The bottom line, according to Alexander:
As of the beginning of last week, The Post had a backlog of hundreds of correction requests, a few dating to 2004. In many cases, readers never heard whether The Post had rejected their request, or why. For them, it was like sending a correction request into a black hole.
The correction process had ground to a halt:
The newspaper’s process for handling correction requests has not worked properly. In some instances, reporters were never even notified that readers had requested corrections to their stories.
There is little statistical analysis to spot trends in errors or to detect reporters (or editors) with high correction rates. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets fixed.
And what never gets measured, fixed, or even looked at gets journalism into a hell of a lot of trouble.
Alexander does an admirable job laying out the Post’s failures. He also hangs the paper with its own words about corrections. “Accuracy is our goal, and candor is our defense,” reads the paper’s corrections policy. “Persons who call errors to our attention should receive a polite and prompt response.” My personal favorite line from the document, which I noted in a previous column, states that “Preventing and correcting mistakes are two sides of the coin of our realm: accuracy.”
By allowing its correction procedure to fall into such disarray, the Post has violated its own standards. It’s also in violation of what I call the “contract of correction,” something that has existed between newspapers and their readers for hundreds of years.
This contract states that journalists will do everything we can to verify what we report, and we’ll correct whatever errors we make as soon as possible, and in a fair manner. It’s a very straightforward promise, and one that was perhaps first expressed on paper in 1690, by the man who founded the first newspaper in America.
In a prospectus for the paper that would become the short-lived Publick Occurrences, Benjamin Harris promised his future readers that:
…nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.
That basic ethic has since become enshrined in journalism. The oft-maligned mainstream media usually talks about a lack of accuracy and standards when criticizing upstart news organizations and bloggers. We regale critics and the public with our dedication to verification and correction. Then, like a government agency mishandling an important housing fund, we perform poorly when it comes to the actual job.
Our words about accuracy and corrections are compelling; our deeds rarely match up. The Post is far from alone.
Alexander did his job by exposing the paper’s failings, and the Post deserves some credit for bucking the trend of eliminating the ombudsman role altogether. Alexander called the paper on its “abysmal performance,” but if his column has one failing it’s that he jumps right to what he calls the “good news,” noting that “The Post’s top editors are aware of the problem.”