Friday, July 27, 2012

Betwixt Mortal and Divine

The correction policy penned by Benjamin Harris, editor of the oldest American newspaper, 
Publick Occurrences, over a couple of centuries ago.

In the wake of the 3-11 killer earthquake and tsunami, legions of foreign journalists scrambled to the devastated shores of Japan to cover what was the big  story of the moment. Their reporting was often derided as being a nothing but a pack of lies or just ill-informed at best. While some of the criticisms were valid , much of the reporting by international media outlets, like the New York Times and others, was right on target and in many instances ahead of the coverage by the Japanese press corp. 

A commonly heard complaint among detractors was that at the heart of the inaccurate reporting by foreign media outlets was a lack of linguistic ability and cultural knowledge. The reporters, who couldn't speak the Japanese language and knew next to nothing about the culture, were dropped onto the scene overnight and they were completely out of their depth the critics cried.

The truth is even native born journalists covering the Japan beat with all their cultural sensitivity and linguistic proficiency can goof up or even just plain make stuff up. It happens from time to time. In fact it happened earlier this week when the Nikkei Shimbun ran a story saying that eleven ward offices in Tokyo refused to cooperate in an emergency management drill being conducted by Japan's Ground Self Defense Forces (GSDF). While Japan is constitutionally prohibited from having an army, the GSDF is the nation's de facto army and has been traditionally tasked with playing  a key emergency management role whenever a natural disaster strikes (which seems to be every other week lately). When the city administrators at the eleven ward offices read about their reluctance to cooperate with the GSDF's emergency drill in the Nikkei, it was literally news to them. Some accused the paper of making the story up and issued statements on their official city ward web pages claiming the article to be false. 

There was a big stink about it all over Tokyo.
That's why it's not surprising that the next day the writer of the provocative piece and his editor showed up at the offices of the angry ward officials to deliver their mea culpas with a promise to print a correction ASAP. It seemed to be the best solution to put the whole bad situation to bed and it might have even worked. 

According to one Internet source, the problem was that when the two representatives from the newspaper showed up to deliver their apologies they were delivered the latest edition of the Nikkei. There staring them in the face was another article. This time it was an op-ed blasting the eleven ward offices for shirking their responsibility to keep the public safe and it was all based on the erroneous article published the day before (oops). 

It was the proverbial salt rubbed in the open wound of these very hurt city officials. On top of that, the commentary piece was literally news to the reporter and editor who had showed up with their tails between their legs ready to make amends.

Commentary happens to be the bailiwick of an entirely different department at the paper and they had no idea their stinky story would be wrapped up a second time and served up raw in the pages of the Nikkei. While the paper eventually issued a correction to the first story, the second continues to stand completely unapologetic.

The truth about the truth reporting business is that mistakes happen all the time. Literature on the subject is scarce but one U.S.-based study  indicates that over half the stories in all American newspapers have some kind of an error (from typographical to factual, etc.). What's worse is that only about two percent of those errors ever get corrected. The study goes a long way toward explaining why many readers have lost faith in the media. It also may point the way to how we might bridge the divide and in the process set the record straight once and for all.

In this age of digital reporting, mistakes can be spotted and, more importantly, corrected more easily and quickly than ever before. It's just up to the media and also the people they serve to take responsibility for rooting out the mistakes before they take on a life of their own and pop up when we least expect them. 

Alexander Pope once said, "to err is human, to forgive is divine." I say to correct our mistakes builds the ladders that bridge the gap between the two extremes. 

To learn more about correcting mistakes in the media read: Bugged By the News?

Further Reading: Corrections in the Web Age (@ The Atlantic)

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