Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again…

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, the terrific blog chronicling uh-oh moments in news, now has a book of the same title coming out imminently and on the book’s site, he’s already posting errors and corrections readers have sent him. Goose, gander. The book is wonderful and important and I recommend it highly.

I was honored to be asked to write the foreword (and was extra delighted to get cover billing). Here are a few snippets of what I said:

* * *

Nobody’s perfect – not even journalists . . . especially not journalists.

Reporters and editors make mistakes. Indeed, they are probably more likely than most to do so. For just as bartenders break more glass because they handle more beer, so journalists who traffic in facts are bound to drop some along the way. . . .

It is time for journalists to trade in their hubris and recapture their humanity and humility. And the best way to do that is simply to admit: We make mistakes.

Craig Silverman’s examination of the art of the correction in his blog and now this book could not come at a better time for journalism. For the public’s trust in news organizations is falling about as fast as their revenues (and, yes, those may be related). One way to earn back that trust is to face honestly and directly the trade’s faults. The more – and more quickly – that news organizations admit and correct their mistakes, prominently and forthrightly, the less their detractors will have grounds to grumble about them.

But for journalists, to admit mistakes is to expose failure; corrections, in this logic, diminish stature and authority rather than enhance them. In my experience, some reporters and editors have tended to think that if they just ignored a mistake for long enough, it – or at least its memory and stench – would fade away.

But now that journalists’ readers and sources can be heard via their personal printing presses on the web, it is no longer possible to ignore errors or, worse, to hide them. . . .

But this discussion should be about so much more than just errors and corrections. This is about new and better ways to gather, share, and verify news. And it is about a radically different and improved relationship between journalists and the public they serve. These changes in the culture and practice of journalism will not just bolster journalism’s reputation but expand its reach and impact in society.

Still, this starts with the error. For it is in the error and the correction that the public has been let into the news to improve it. That – and the rare letter to the editor that makes print – had been the only chinks in the castle walls around journalism. But now, thanks to the internet, the public and journalists can do so much more together. The correction is only the beginning of a long list of new means of collaboration. . . .

News is a process. It is a process of trying to get ever closer to truth, to find more facts now with more hands, to see the story through the perspectives of more eyes, to fill in the voids and find the shape of news together. . . .

In the end, this is about instilling an ethic of transparency – even about our fallibility and foibles – in journalism, professional and amateur. It is about being unafraid to speak in our imperfect human voice instead of hiding behind the cold, castle walls of the institution. It is about forging a new relationship of collaboration with the public we serve. It is about our shared goal of a better and more accurately informed society.

We all make mistakes. That’s not the question. The question is what we do next.

  • It’s interesting that the way old media handles their mistakes is far less “open” than most large new media sites. If a newspaper prints an error, it’s there for a day at least, and the correction is often extremely inadequate (this habit has moved to online newspaper sites too: they think readers can’t cope with seeing a strike through some incorrect info, with an explanation of “Update:” underneath).

    If a major blog prints an error, it’s often corrected within minutes (or hours), and the former error remains there for everyone to see.

    Of course, blogs tend to make a lot more errors. So, you’re kinda screwed whichever way you go: which brings us back to square one. “The medium is the message.”

    Update: I added a strike tag, thinking it wouldn’t recognize it! Please delete the previous comment :)

  • Being willing to correct mistakes can be an “interesting” proposition.

    For example, several months ago, I wrote a piece on women who kill their husbands and then use the “battered women” defense at Dean’s World, where I’m a contributor. Not only was the Mary Winkler story in the news, but we’d had several similar incidents in my local area.

    A couple of weeks ago I got e-mail from someone who claimed to know one of the local suspects intimately, and insisted what I was saying was “lies, all lies” or something to that effect. So I e-mailed back, with a request for more specifics. Also suggested he or she (it was one of those first names that could be either one) contact the local newspaper and TV stations with any corrections to the story.

    The points I’d been working with were several accounts from police who reported multiple past instances of domestic violence, where it was clear to them the female suspect was the offender. These had been reported on the TV stations and one local newspaper.

    After a couple of e-mail exchanges, it came clear that my correspondent, who turned out to be the suspect’s sister, could not discredit anything in either my blog entry or news accounts; her primary interest was in keeping the issue out of the news, because she was afraid the suspect’s children would see negative things about their mother and be somehow damaged by the revelation. As if these kids, ages 9, 13, and 18 were entirely unaware of anything amiss in their mother’s behavior and would only find out by reading my stuff online.

    People sometimes have a weird concept of news altogether, especially when it affects them personally.

  • Jeff, So maybe you think my suggestion about your next summit wasn’t such a bad idea after all? “The NYC summit that journalists should have had: How to get audiences to like them again” (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

  • Chris’s book and blog sound very interesting. Everyone everywhere at any time has the potential to make a mistake. I appreciate the fact that you, Jeff, are sticking your own neck out a bit to acknowledge this concern. To be fair, however, journalists are no different than many other professionals who sometimes reluctant to admitting errors. It’s the unique visibility and nature of the journalist’s profession that must make this problem even more painful.

  • Andy Freeman

    > It’s the unique visibility and nature of the journalist’s profession that must make this problem even more painful.

    There’s another difference – other professions don’t see themselves as “watchmen”, which is all well and good, and haven’t taken it upon themselves to trash other folks who make mistakes, which isn’t.

    Journalists like to point to their grand intents, but given their actual delivery, is it really surprising that no one cares what happens to them? (No – their intent doesn’t count nearly as much as the reasonably forseeable consequences of their actions. In fact, their reliance on the former as a defense when the latter comes up is merely evidence of insanity.)

  • As a legacy journalist myself, your post brings to mind that expression heard around the newsrooms of old: Editors are not always right, but they’re never wrong.

  • Ellen Miller

    Well said, Jeff. I think I’d like to make a banner of these two sentences “In the end, this is about instilling an ethic of transparency – even about our fallibility and foibles – in journalism, professional and amateur. It is about being unafraid to speak in our imperfect human voice instead of hiding behind the cold, castle walls of the institution” and hang it across the Capitol dome.

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