Newspaper Editors Confront Errors: 'We Learn from One Another's Mistakes.' (Curator's Corner)

By Giles, Bob | Nieman Reports, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Newspaper Editors Confront Errors: 'We Learn from One Another's Mistakes.' (Curator's Corner)


Giles, Bob, Nieman Reports


A strength of our craft is its transparency and its capacity for searching examination when core values and standards of journalistic performance are violated. This spring, several of our nation's leading newspapers demonstrated an admirable willingness to investigate their failures and inform the public through detailed accounts. The New York Times published an extensive account of how reporter Jayson Blair repeatedly wrote stories based on what the paper called "fabrication and plagiarism." And The Miami Herald acknowledged that it published a story that unfairly accused the winning Kentucky Derby jockey of cheating.

The power of e-mail and the Internet means that internal newsroom efforts to address problems of journalistic ethics and performance get widely circulated on Web sites and quickly become public forums for discussion and debate, as well as a place for venting anger. Airing of opinions, criticisms and thoughts about why such situations happened and how to correct problems are healthy for journalism. We learn from one another's mistakes. And through this process of self-examination, we send an important message to the public that in our most embarrassing moments we're willing to be candid and to work at making necessary corrections to prevent reoccurrences and rebuild trust.

In this tradition, our craft is unusual. Compare these responses to the Enron Corporation, where executives tried hard to prevent public disclosure of practices, which eventually led to the company's collapse by misleading the public, the securities markets, investors and, for a long time, journalists. Those in top positions at news organizations are more likely to initiate self-criticism and be forthcoming about their errors.

When a newspaper's standards are violated, it is the editor who must stand before the bar of public opinion. In some cases, it's been the editor who writes explanatory columns for the readers, who gives interviews, talks with readers, or holds a press conference. The editor must also be the person who responds to questions from angry staff members and readers, both of whom feel betrayed. It is often editors who answer readers' queries about the paper's ethics and performance. Rarely does a corporate spokesperson speak for the editor, nor is there a covey of flaks hovering nearby to coach an editor on how to spin the story to minimize the damage.

The evidence of wrongdoing can be raw, as the Times's four-page coverage on May 12th demonstrated. The questions from staff can be raw, as well, as the editor, Howell Raines, discovered in his two-hour meeting with the Times's staff three days later. …

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