Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mistakes in newspapers (by Suzie)

       In the 1990s, a lot of newspaper journalists talked about improving policies on correcting mistakes, to boost the credibility of the profession. They encouraged readers to report errors,  and they ran corrections where readers could find them easily. The New York Times still has such a policy, for example.
       At other newspapers, the enthusiasm for correcting mistakes has waned, along with job security.
       Newspapers contribute to the historical record, and a lot of people assume what’s printed is true. Errors were bad enough in the days before home computers, when researchers had to sort through yellowed clippings or microfiche to read past articles. Now that many articles are online, research is much easier, but it's also easier to spread errors.
        As an example, I’ll use the St. Petersburg Times, a large and respected newspaper in Florida. Wednesday, I posted a link to an excellent article the Times ran on Zora Neale Hurston. The newspaper had run a column a few weeks ago that said Hurston “always considered herself a ‘Womanist.’” I called to correct that. Alice Walker coined the term, first using it in print in 1983. Hurston died in 1960.
        If the Times corrected the column, I can’t tell it from its Web site. The column isn’t changed, nor is there a correction appended. If editors thought I was mistaken, they could have called or emailed to tell me so. 
     Last year, I cited a few examples of this problem in a local “alternative” newspaper. A story on Hooters, a restaurant chain known for buxom servers, implied that the corporation didn't feel comfortable contributing to the fight against breast cancer until one of its beloved employees got publicity for her battle with the disease in 2006. I posted a comment noting that Hooters financed the "Owl's Den," a conference room near the old breast-cancer clinic at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa before 2006. This questions the premise of the story, but only those who read after me saw my post.
         Also last year, the Times wrote about a principal who was retiring because she had metastatic leiomyosarcoma. She had the same diagnosis that I have, and we both went to Moffitt. There was a good chance we had the same doctor; Moffitt had only one medical oncologist who focused on leiomyosarcoma. The story included the phrase: "Doctors later explained that her form of cancer does not respond to chemotherapy ..." Actually, Moffitt gives chemotherapy to leiomyosarcoma patients all the time. I got complete (albeit temporary) remission from chemotherapy. I passed along an email from my doctor – an expert in the treatment of sarcoma with chemotherapy – explaining why the Times was wrong. The Times chose not to run even a clarification.
        I’m more familiar with errors in the St. Petersburg Times because I used to read it daily. This is not just a problem at the Times, however. It’s an issue at my former newspaper, which competes with the Times, as it is at many other newspapers.
        Letting readers correct stories in the comment section isn't sufficient. People who don't read online won't see the comment, and even those who do may miss it. At the Times, many stories and their comments can be found by searching its site. But if you search its archives, the comments are not saved. Other newspapers have different policies on how they save or display stories and comments.
       Telling readers to write a letter to the editor is a lazy way of correcting errors. First of all, the reader doesn't know if the letter will get printed. A letter also implies that the error is a matter of opinion, not something journalists can verify.
        Everyone makes mistakes. The issue is how we handle corrections. As a blogger, I’ll do my best to correct mine.