April 29, 2005  ·  Lessig

So here’s a genuine question about journalistic ethics that I’ve gotten different feedback about:

(1) that a regular reporter at a major publication writes an article that with some length, but in passing, describes X,
(2) that the report is factually and fundamentally wrong,
(3) that X complains to the reporter, and publication about the mistakes, but
(4) no correction follows,
(5) then the reporter asks to write an “in depth report” about X,
(6) and the publication authorizes it.

Given 1-4, is 5 or 6:

(a) common
(b) unremarkable
(c) odd
(d) bad business
(e) unethical

My sense is at least (d): if the report is generous, it seems a way to make up; if the report is critical, it seems grudge journalism.


  • http://www.jzip.org/ adamsj

    You’ll have to read the subsequent story and see. Otherwise, you’re prejudging based on your perception of why the original story went south.

  • http://jpkenyon.blogspot.com John

    This happens all the time, but not necessarily for malicious reasons. I suppose things like this story that ran as a mea culpa after the Chicago Tribune for the second time misidentified a local upstanding citizen as being a mobster are pretty much par for the course:

  • http://mparillo.blogspot.com Marco Parillo

    I think if the new article sets the record straight without a formal retraction, it is called a “rowback”, which appears to be a journalistic term of art, made well-know by bloggers calling attention to errors. See: http://www.doubletongued.org/index.php/dictionary/rowback_1/

  • George Estrada

    The lack of correction in spite of X’s complaints rings to me to be very hubris.

    While not knowing what the “in depth” report consist of one can speculate that it might be a possible attempt to “correct” his/her error while spinning the facts in such a way that they don’t look like they were really wrong to begin with…A matter of “perspective”.

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl/branko/blog/ Branko Collin

    I used to be a J, er, journalist, and I find your question too V, er, vague, to answer.

    Are you asking for a judgement on an editor giving a journalist a license to lie? Well, that’s certainly not what most journalist aspire to, but on the other hand it provides others with a living. (I would not call these others journalists though.)

  • Carol Anne

    It’s just par for the course. The journalist just writes the story. There are numerous other editors in the loop, each of whom are progressively more concerned with creating “drama” to spur circulation than with accurately reporting the facts. As a local public official I’m used to it. I used to get angry, then I discovered that just makes erstwhile “journalists” to be even more “dramatic” in the future. The corruption of ad-driven journalism is nearly complete, now, anyway.

  • http://weblog.ipcentral.info/ Patrick Ross

    As a former journalist myself, I have to agree with Branko about vagueness. For one, you’re asking us to accept on faith that (2) is true, but one person’s error is another person’s differing perspective. If the reporter and publication disagree with X on (2) — and (4) would suggest that possibility — then (5) and (6) may be completely unrelated to the original story.

    Sources always protested when I’d ask them hypothetical questions. Trying to parse this one, I see why now.

  • stencilv

    Ross wrote:

    As a former journalist myself, I have to agree with Branko about
    vagueness. For one, you’re asking us to accept on faith that (2)
    is true, but one person’s error is another person’s differing

    Lessig stipulated “factually and fundamentally wrong”. There are evidently a (large) number of ways this could be true that do not depend on one’s “perspective”.

  • http://www.povmedia.com Jim Feeley

    Interesting comments so far. As a journalist and former editor (and as a guy who’s been X’d several times), let me add a couple thoughts.

    1) Reporters make mistakes. Most regret them.
    2) Editors approve and print the mistakes. Most regret it.
    3) Editors, not reporters, decide if a correction runs. Many don’t spend much time thinking about them.
    4) Reporters, at least in my experience, are ALWAYS looking for the next story that will let them meet their next deadline.

    X’s complaint may cause the reporter to take another look at his or her understanding and description of X. And that may lead to a genuine desire to understand and explain the issue (or person) at greater length. Guilt and weaselness may play some part, too. But I suspect that the complaint by X mainly functioned as a lead on a possible story. Profiles can be both fun and fairly easy to write. And if X has a book that just recently came out in paperback, then that might make enough of a news peg to get an editor to approve a profile. But there are as many possible motives as there are journalists.

    As for (d), odds are only X will remember the previous slight when the “in depth report” comes out.

    If X = Me,
    Then I’d decide about helping with the “in depth report” based on my gut feeling about how the final article would come out. Was the first mistake caused by carelessness or ignorance? It’s easier to address the later. What does X think of other articles written by the reporter? What does X think of the journal/paper/magazine/site/whatever that prints the reporter’s work? Could the result be worth the time X will need to spend working with the reporter?

    Well that’s enough from me.


  • PrivacyHound

    As someone who is not a former journalist I have a no problem saying that the question of ethics is cute and dried right at step 4. Newspapers, magazines and television shows in general have deplorable corrections policies. Even when a correction is made, it is never made with the same prominence as the original article, thus the correction never balances out the original error. A front page article with an error may be later “corrected” by a small note bundled in with a bunch of other corrections buried inside the paper.

    I’d say this is where blogs are often much more responsible. Many blogs mark articles as updated and even leave the original offending text as “strike through” for reference followed by the corrected information.

    I think all news organizations have an obligation to correct significant errors with the same provinces as the original error. This would encourage them to get their facts right in the first place.

  • PrivacyHound

    Speaking of corrections “cute and dried” should read “cut and dried.” Sigh…I must have been distracted…

  • http://themysterioustraveler.blogspot.com Karen G. Anderson

    As a former journalist/editor now married to a public official occasionally in the local news, I believe strongly that a correction is required–assuming the error is one of fact pertinent to the original story. (If X was described as a massage therapist when she is a neurosurgeon, and the story is about healthcare, it’s pertinent. If the story is about parents including X arguing about school closings at Board of Education meeting, it’s not.) Some of the news organizations I worked for were scrupulous about corrections; some weren’t. It used to be that the majority of reporting errors were attributatable to sloppiness; recently I’ve spotted quite a few that were the result of a reporter simply rewriting a press release and repeating inaccurate information deliberately planted by organization issuing the release. That’s a good deal scarier.

  • dan rubin

    The right thing to do is to fix the error – as soon as you are certain of it, says this journalist with 25 years experience making mistakes. Then you decide if the subject warrants another story. It’s clean and easy. One problem with laundering the mistakes in a second story: the perception some could have that the reporter is buying the source’s silence about the errors with a favorable story, if the story is in fact favorable.

  • http://www.ijournalist.com/jblog Saleem Khan

    Based on the information offered, it’s hard to accurately assess whether 5 & 6 fall into any of the categories a-e suggest. But writing as a news editor:

    Jim Feeley’s four-point list (above) about how journalists work is essentially correct. But I don’t think it’s correct to say any editor with any degree of professionalism doesn’t think about errors.

    After a publication goes to press, editors rely on readers to alert them to errors. Recent incidents of fabrication and plagiarism were only able to continue for as long as they did because even the people misrepresented in the articles decided not to tell the paper there was a problem.

    When errors occur, no one would disagree that they should be corrected. But space constraints often factor into the decision to run a correction and if, in an editor’s estimation, the error did noy ot would not cause damage, one may not run.

    All of this assumes the editor finds out about the error at all. In the scenario outlined, the source talked to the reporter, who may not have passed on the fact of the error to his or her editors. There could be a lot of reasons for this.

    The lack of a correction and the reporter’s request to write another story on the subject suggests the error was the reporter’s (as opposed to being introduced in editing) who is now attempting to make things right, and that the editors are unaware that anything was wrong with the first article.

    None of this strikes me as unethical, but it does sound like sloppy journalism and bad business.

  • http://www.peacefire.org/ Bennett Haselton

    Just addressing questions 1 through 4: I think the editor’s obligation to correct the error also depends on whether the error was printed or appeared in an online article. If the article is online, then there are two more compelling reasons to correct it: (1) it’s easier, since you can make the change to the article itself, and (2) if the article isn’t fixed, people will continue to find it and read the wrong information.

    The most glaring example of when this happened to me, was when the New York Times published an article that people are *still* finding, claiming that I was fired from Microsoft in 2000:
    The two major errors in the article were: it states that I was fired (when I actually quit), and it clearly implies that I was leaking proprietary information that I acquired while I worked there (when in reality I was publicizing an IE security hole that I found independently after I left). I complained about both errors repeatedly but the paper did nothing.

    So after the Public Editor’s office was created in 2003, I complained to them again, and after weeks of stalling they called a woman at the Microsoft alumni group who had access to the official employment records, and she confirmed to them that I quit, I wasn’t fired, and the article was wrong.

    After that, I didn’t hear from them for weeks, until they wrote back to say they wouldn’t correct the online article because it never appeared in the print version. I immediately wrote back asking (a) we had established at the very beginning that the article only appeared in the online version, so why were they bringing that up *now*, and (b) more importantly, what difference does that make anyway? But they refused to discuss it any more.

    I posted an archive of all the emails between me and them, at:

    At about that time an employer found that article and thought I had lied about my employment history, but fortunately I convinced them to check my MS employment history, and they verified that the article was incorrect. They put more effort into fact-checking the article than the New York Times did.

  • erin

    I’ve recently seen something really deplorable happen on the website for L.A Citybeat. Someone came on and said “good piece. Why don’t you mention that the subject of your piece is your roommate,” to the writer of the piece, Tom Sharpe.
    The piece was in the comedy section and it was very complimentary towards someone name Tig Notaro.

    In response to this question, Tom Sharpe adamantly denied that he was the subjectof the piece’s roommate, and skirted the issue with irrelevant comments about how he loves comedy and comedians

    Shortly thereafter, it was all deleted. When the person who had made the perfectly valid query asked why the posts had been deleted Sharpe came on and made some statements saying how Notaro is being stalked and that is why it all had to be deleted. The person who had written the initial comments seemed to know that Tom sharpe was listed in court documents as Notaro’s roommate. Then this was deleted. Then The editor, Rebecca Schoenkopf came on and wrote only, deleted for general abusiveness.” There was nothing remotely abusive about the comments. I dug a bit deeper and though I’m not sure Mr. Sharpe is a roommate of the subject of the article I did discover that many relationships that should be disclosed were not disclosed, and that another writer for the paper, Amy Alkon, was involved.I can go on in more detail, but till then does anyone know the best place to lodge a complaint about a clear cut case of unethical journalism.