Friday, November 24, 2006

Why sorry is still the hardest word

The lovingly crafted front page blurb – Rescuers find plane wreckage – directed readers to page 3 to find out the latest on a mysterious crash into the Caribbean Sea off St Vincent.
Sadly, as many smart-arse readers pointed out, the story wasn’t on page 3, in fact it wasn’t anywhere in the paper at all. While newsroom battles were being lost and won and the hurly-burly done, it just got left out. Simple as that. No excuses. Lots of people should and could have seen it was missing (including me) and no-one did.
Our newsroom inquest didn’t last long and it was time to own up. Trouble is, we don’t have a regular spot where apologies, clarifications and corrections can live, so it ended up tacked on the end of the follow-up story.

A question of redress
Our paper is huge, often up to 200 pages a day, so the opportunity for errors goes up in proportion. We have all the usual mistakes – factual errors, misquoting, bits left out etc etc - but currently nowhere in the paper to redress any of this.
It has prompted me to think seriously about starting somewhere in the paper where readers can point out errors, and indeed staff own up.
So I asked the granddaddy of corrections, Ian Mayes, Readers Editor at The Guardian in London for his advice. Specifically, I asked: What is the answer to internal critics who say that a column like this is just pointing out our own deficiencies and giving the opposition fuel for mockery?
Mayes replied: “There has been very little mockery of the Guardian's column
(not to confuse mockery with merriment at some of the funnier corrections).
I suspect that the main reason is that every journalist knows that mistakes are endemic. We all make them. As someone might have said, to err is human, to correct is, well if not divine, a very good thing.

Enhanced reputations
“Its acceptance by journalists at the Guardian is indicated by the number who now email or call into my office to say there's a mistake in my piece today etc. The
Guardian's experience is that trust is enhanced by carrying corrections columns. So
overall therefore is the reputation of the journalists.”
Mayes writes Open Door, a weekly column The Guardian, and is also president of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen. His daily columns are so celebrated they’ve been compiled into books.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the dizzy heights of ombudsman or book author, but I’m prepared to devise a column for saying sorry when we need to. Seems only fair.

1 comment:

  1. Saying that you were wrong does improve your credibility, and it's a rare thing to see in a paper these days. I'm sure it must be very disappointing to the kind of people who sit with the paper in one hand and a red pen in the other, just waiting to pounce on every error you make. just in case nobody realises just how smart they are...

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