Newspaper ethics

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on March 21, 2017

This past weekend, in the wake of a $1.1 million libel judgment against, the San Luis Obispo Tribune published a piece from its editor, Sandra Duerr, touting the paper's code of ethics. As newspaper ethics statements go, it's a pretty good one.

However, Ms. Duerr appears to have a training problem on her staff.

▪  If we make a mistake, we correct that error immediately online and in print in a transparent way so readers know exactly what we’re correcting. Some websites simply change a story to correct the error — or unpublish the story. We don’t. If an online story is incorrect, we’ll add an editor’s note to the story that says “Correction” and clearly note what we have corrected.

Here's a brief crime/accident report from earlier this month. If you scroll down to the comments, you'll note this one by me:

My comment, along with that of another reader who confirms the errors I spotted.

If you go to that story, you'll note that Nicholas Adam Hembree's name now appears for the first and only time in the final graph. The picture, if I recall correctly, is the same, but now bears Hembree's name, rather than that of Aaron Schafer.

It's also interesting to look at the timestamps. The story is timestamped at "MARCH 11, 2017 12:04 PM." My first comment is timestamped by Facebook more than five hours later, at 5:24 p.m. Hunter Kilpatrick says he still sees the original errors I note at 7:27 p.m. And I have a follow-up comment noting that the story has been fixed with no note that any corrections have been made at 9:53 p.m.

So, at some time between 7:27 p.m. and 9:53 p.m., the story was fixed, but the original timestamp didn't change.

Wholesale article substitution

At the end of January, when the mainstream media's reaction to anything Donald Trump said or did resulted in widespread ignorance of political history and journalists hair being set aflame on a regular basis, much was made of what was characterized as some sort of revolt at Foggy Bottom.

Every senior manager at the State Department had resigned. It was unprecedented...if you hadn't been around eight years ago when Barack Obama won the presidency, or eight years before that when George W. Bush succeeded Bill Clinton.

The Tribune carried that breathless, ignorant story from The Washington Post's Josh Rogin. You can find it archived, thankfully, by the Internet Wayback Machine and alarmingly headlined: "The State Department's entire senior management team just resigned."

If you follow the same URL, minus the Internet Wayback Machine preface, you get a completely different story by the Associated Press headlined a more sober "Trump team accepts resignations from State Department senior management."

I encourage you to read both articles and note the differing ways that "unbiased" reporters can spin the same facts. It really is an excellent example for student journalists in what bias looks like.

As far as the Tribune and its code of ethics goes, the problem here is that they swapped in a completely new story at the same URL and there is no note they ever did so. I made a comment on the original Post story calling it fake news, and my comment still appears below...a completely different story. A story it doesn't apply to.

This isn't uncommon for media outlets

A few years ago I was reading a story in the paper I used to work for, The San Diego Union-Tribune, on University of San Diego Toreros and what was going to be their football team's first trip to the Division I-AA playoffs. In that article, the reporter erroneously wrote that USD had defeated Cal Poly earlier that season. That was incorrect, they had lost.

I highlighted the error in the comments and a day later returned to the story to see if it had been corrected. The reporter had corrected it, but had left no note that he had corrected it. This omission prompted a reader to allege that I had read the story wrong and that the reporter had gotten it right in the first place.

Just a few weeks ago, none other than The New York Times did something similar, disappearing several paragraphs quoting Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill on then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala) meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Newspaper ethics

Duerr's rule on corrections/changes to print and web articles is the right one. But her staff isn't always doing it. I've highlighted two recent incidents where they failed to follow their own standards, and I'd be shocked if they were the only ones.

Some additional training is in order. Newspaper ethics matter.

3 comments on “Newspaper ethics”

  1. Hmm, I think you're holding Sandy's feet too close to the fire. The first instance you cite is about fixing a copy mangle and the second is not about a Tribune story but a pick-up. Neither rises to the level of newspaper ethics. The "mistakes" Sandy is referring to are mistakes of fact by her own staff. At least, that's what I think she'd say. The Tribune is always an easy mark. But I have noticed that former employees and columnists grind axes about the paper long after they should have let it go and moved on.

    1. When it comes to this sort of thing, others have often judged me as a tough grader. To that, I plead guilty.

      Where this becomes an ethics issue is when Sandy runs a somewhat "Holier-than-thou" sidebar touting her paper's transparency, and then doesn't follow through on it in the easy cases.

      For the first example, how hard is it to append: "This story has been updated for clarity and to correct the identification on a mug shot."? It's ridiculously easy to do, but it wasn't done.

      For the second example, if the story is a pick-up, then why the need to swap a second story in in the first place? Obviously it was important enough to do that, but not enough to do it right? This sort of thing can also make commenters look foolish because the story they originally commented on has now disappeared and is replaced with something their comments do not apply to. In this example, it appears that I am criticizing the story by the AP's Matt Lee, when in fact I think that's a good story.

      What I would've recommended doing in the second case is orphaning the original story (removing all links to the story so that you can only get to it if you already had the unique URL), with a note at the bottom that the story has been superseded by new reporting and a link to the new story. Then post the new story at a new URL and have the new story linked on your front page. This way the original story still exists. The comments stay with the original story. And you've got the updated story front and center where you want it.

      I'm trying to hold Sandy to her own standards--not arbitrary ones I've chosen.

      As for this post being borne out of bitterness, that's just not the case. I criticized the Tribune here long before they had me as a columnist. I criticized the Union-Tribune long before I was ever laid off from there. I've criticized newspapers and magazines that I've never worked for.

      I do this not out of self-centered, petty bitterness, but because I care about good journalism.


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