Monday, June 3, 2013

An apology

We are human; we make mistakes.
In the news business, those mistakes when printed are in front of the public's eye. They can embarrass, enrage or inflame a part of our community, which is never our intention.
We're embarrassed and often pretty angry with ourselves, too, when a careless error gets into print.
As editor, I am the first and last stop on the complaint chain regarding errors. The two-part question I get most often is: "What's wrong with you people? Did you ever hear of proofreaders?"
The answer to that is a) we're human, and b) proofreading as a single job title went out with hot type, which was a change in our industry 40-some years ago. We do "proof" our pages, but the editors who do that are juggling other work at the same time, and they may not catch every mistake on a page.
That is not a good excuse, but it's reality. Editors proofing pages are as human as the people who misspelled a word in the first place.
After a glaring error, readers often demand "a retraction." A retraction, or taking back a mistake, is impossible in print. More than anyone, we at The Mercury wish we could take back mistakes as if they never happened. But print is unforgiving.
Then, there are the "mistakes" people complain about  which are not our errors. It is not a mistake that we printed a shoplifting arrest or a DUI charge, even if it is embarrassing and may cause personal repercussions. I tell those callers that we print the police reports provided as public information, and if the disposition of the case proves the person innocent, we'll report that as well.
We also are sometimes accused for including too much detail in a story, or for using bad taste in story, headline or photo judgment. These are not as clear cut as spelling errors or public information.
The guidance on judgment is whether it is defensible. If there is a reason, such as consistent treatment of information, the public right to know or a higher level of importance to presenting information for which we may be criticized, publish.  If there is no good reason for something questionable, don't publish.
Recently, The Mercury published a headline on the front page that violated all the above criteria. The headline was a play on words on Hill School commencement speaker Oliver Stone that in its writing was thought to be clever. In its reading, it trivialized the accomplishments of the Hill class.
The day the headline appeared, I wrote an apology on behalf of The Mercury to Hill School headmaster Zachary Lehman. In part, it read:

"The headline in question was not representative of The Mercury's standards of journalism or view of The Hill School. We value your institution’s role in our community as a global institution of learning and respect your students and faculty leaders for your part in that role. ... We support your work in educating future leaders and trust that you support ours in promoting that education to the community."
Everyone involved, including me and the writer of this headline, sincerely regrets the publication of what was an ill-conceived attempt to be clever. We apologize to the entire Hill community, past and present, for its publication. 
Retractions aren't possible. We have to settle for lessons learned.

No comments:

Post a Comment