Friday, August 21, 2009

The Fine Art Of Corrections

One of the great things working for newspapers for so many years is the corrections we needed to print. Some editors were more sensitive to the process than others. A few were impervious to the point of neglecting their responsibility until the filing of a law suit.

Some may recall the recent plight of The New York Times when its ombudsman corrected a story written by the paper's TV critic who committed seven errors in the Walter Cronkite obituary.

But, the Los Angeles Times, plagued by recent staff cutbacks and a dearth of copy editors, has taken the correction business to a new level. And, I quote:

Thank goodness The Times is the forthright, ethical institution that it is.

And when a mistake happens, it rushes to set the journalistic record straight with an honest repair.

Here is an actual correction from Page A4 of today's print edition:


TV listings: The Prime-Time TV grid in Thursday's Calendar section mistakenly listed MTV's "Jackass" show on the MSNBC cable schedule at 7 and 10 p.m. where instead MSNBC's "Countdown With Keith Olbermann" should have been listed.

It's not the Worst Mistake in the World.

But without this kind of correction, online too, a few thousand people might have tuned into MSNBC, the Obama administration's favorite cable channel, expecting to see a "Jackass" show, and instead they'd have found Olbermann.

Worse, what if nobody noticed the difference?

-- Andrew Malcolm

Over the years -- even as recently as yesterday when I offered up a new first name (Harry) for West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd -- I have made hundreds. Some were simple typographical errors. Two in particular were real doozies and both where I committed the same crime.

In one, from a police report I jailed the good guy who defended himself from an attacker rather than the other way around.

The other needs some explanation. A young woman walked into the Santa Ana Register where I worked and requested a retraction from a paid classified ad. The ad recorded her father's funeral services but when the family viewed the casket, the body was not her father. Helluva human interest story, I declared. It was an old friend of her father's from Mexico who for years fraudulently used the guy's identification. I wrote the story one day. The next day I wrote the correction because I got the names reversed. Man, that was confusing AND embarrassing.

The Register in the late 1950s was notorious for allowing its editorial judgment get in the way of facts. It once wrote a retraction over a story about Dr. Edwin Teller, one of the principles in the development of the atomic bomb. The retraction was so laced with more inaccuracies that Teller's attorneys forced a second retraction of the first retraction.

When I worked for the San Diego Evening Tribune, it would not be unusual for a few people to call and demand a retraction of a story they deemed unfair and one-sided. The usual spiel was the caller said he lived in La Jolla where our publisher Jim Copley (pronounced COP-ly) resided.

Once, a caller said he was a personal friend of Mr. COPE-ly. Leo Bowler, our assistant managing editor, after one of his famous three-martini luncheons, told the guy to do something anatomically impossible and slammed down the phone.

But, really, corrections are the right thing to do and it is a practice I wish bloggers would follow more assiduously than from what I have seen.

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