Saturday, October 26, 2013

Reporting and editing errors happen

In 33 years in the newspaper business, I made plenty of mistakes, but I was never fired over a mistake. I also dealt with a good number of mistakes made by reporters and editors who worked for me, but I never fired anyone solely because of a reporting or editing error.

It is the nature of the news, that "first draft of history," that mistakes are made in the rush to get the news out quickly (and before competitors beat you to it). Most of the errors are inconsequential. Sometimes the errors are substantial, and occasionally (rarely), they are egregious. Once the newspaper is printed and out the door, or the news is broadcast on radio or TV or posted on a website, you can't take it back. You can't "unring the bell." The best you can do is correct the error and apologize. As a newspaper editor, I adopted a practice of trying to make the correction as visible and prominent as the error. A front page error got a front-page correction. An inside error got an inside correction. You adopt a protocol for limiting errors, especially significant errors. Editors need to read carefully and ask questions: Is this address correct? Did you doublecheck that name? Did you give (the accused party) a chance to comment? Do you have this (explosive) quote on tape? How do you know this is factual?

Still, errors happen. It's the nature of the business.

Because errors are so common, it's surprising that a respected Associated Press reporter in Richmond would be fired, along with two editors, because of an error. The error, claiming that a gubernatorial candidate had lied to an investigator, was egregious, but it was quickly corrected, and, in the broad scheme of things, didn't amount to much. It was, perhaps, the equivalent of reports that Lyndon Johnson had also been shot on Nov. 22, 1963, or that Jim Brady had died from a gunshot in the 1981 Reagan assassination attempt. Neither was true.

AP reporter Bob Lewis' mistake could have been avoided by more cautious reporting, fact-checking and editing. His mistake was one of those things that fall through the cracks and can't be readily explained after the fact. Was his mistake and two editors' failure to demand documentation so egregious that all three should be canned? Most Virginia politicians and many AP employees seem to think not. The mistakes were serious enough to be punishable, no doubt. A suspension or a written warning would have been more acceptable and probably sufficient to avoid further missteps.

Because the error was not deliberate and was, in some sense, understandable, a lesser punishment would be more appropriate. The Associated Press, which has maintained high standards of performance and accuracy for generations, is sensitive to the lack of respect journalists hold in the public's mind. An overly severe punishment is unlikely to raise the level of public respect.

Lewis had earned the respect of Virginia politicians (no easy feat for a reporter) of both parties, but his reporting career might be over because of what apparently is his first serious reporting error. Few organizations will be willing to hire him after the publicity this incident has generated. Because of AP's firing, more than his own mistake, Lewis is damaged goods. Lewis' only hope may be an appeal of AP's action and his hope to be reinstated, chastened but still skilled, knowledgeable and respected.

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