How should a newspaper crawl back from a big mistake?

Media criticism.
Oct. 13 2006 6:50 PM

Having Climbed Out Onto a Limb That Cracks …

How should a newspaper crawl back?

This week, New York columnist Kurt Andersen adds another 2,000 words to the din of criticism savaging the New York Times for its coverage of the Duke rape case.

Andersen's sharply reasoned piece cites previous volleys launched by Stuart Taylor Jr. (April 29 [$] and May 20 in National Journal; Aug. 29 in Slate); two Times op-ed columnists, David Brooks (May 28 [$]) and Nicholas Kristof (June 11 [$]); and blogger KC Johnson. * In a nutshell, the critics rebuke the paper for its credulous coverage of District Attorney Mike Nifong's investigation and prosecution of three lacrosse players.

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By my reckoning, the critics win the match, a judgment I believe most readers will also reach after reading the Times accounts (see its "Duke University" page) and the words of its detractors.

But I'm not here to re-review the Duke case. My topic is grander: Why is it so hard for newspapers that have climbed out onto a limb in reporting a story to turn back once they hear the wood cracking? Instead of announcing their errors in judgment, most newspapers reverse course by ignoring the flawed stories in their back pages and taking a new tack—as if those old stories had never been written. Inside the trade, correcting a previous story in a new story without acknowledging the past error is called row-back.

Part of the problem is practical—nobody outside a few press critics working online want today's newspaper to annotate yesterday's flawed news and add a few new facts. The news moves, and readers rightly expect newspapers to move with it. But when a newspaper is instrumental in shaping the press coverage of a news topic, and it turns out to have botched the story on several levels, an explicit course correction would benefit everybody.

So, why are newspapers so hesitant to acknowledge their flawed work? Among other things, no journalist ever got a raise for saying, "I got it wrong." The whole incentive structure encourages journalists to deny or otherwise obfuscate the mistakes and miscues they and their publications commit.

This is good for journalists, of course, but bad for readers. Last month, I berated the Washington Post for publishing a Page One story on widely held misconceptions about anthrax without mentioning that it had been a prime purveyor of those very misconceptions four years ago. This is like ringing your neighbor's doorbell and screaming that his house is on fire but neglecting to tell him you lit the flame.

Newspaper reporters, as opposed to opinion journalists writing in Slate and elsewhere, subscribe to the gospel of objectivity. In theory, objectivity is a terrific concept: By considering all the facts impartially and presenting them in a balanced and fair manner, you find the truth. But journalistic objectivity fractures when its practitioners get many important details right—as the Times reporters have in their Duke dispatches—but still manage to botch the essence of the story. As long as they satisfy themselves that they've been objective and accurate in the presentation of facts, newspapers have no elegant mechanism for saying, "Whoops!" and correcting course. Instead, newspapers tend to reinforce their mistakes in judgment or ignore them until the noise from critics forces them to confess to a kind of journalistic malpractice. This is how the Times finally extricated itself from its flawed Wen Ho Lee and WMD coverage.

What newspapers need is a tool larger than a correction but smaller than a voluminous editors' note. Ideally, it would fit inside the body of a news story—preferably close to the top—and economically and transparently signal that a paper's previous coverage of a story was flawed.

Say the Gazette had charted for its readers an ocean of damning evidence about Col. Mustard's apparent role in the murder of the Maid, but that the Gazette had overplayed his culpability. No need to put on the hair shirt and complain about being duped by county prosecutors. A simple explanation citing new evidence—or a fresh look at old evidence—would suffice, as long as it conveyed the elemental fact that the paper was turning 90 degrees on the murdered-Maid case. The first two paragraphs of the corrective story might read:

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