At one newspaper they're called "amplifications." At another, "editors' notes." Here, editors prefer "clarifications." All have the same objective: redress the story that was unfair, unbalanced, wanting in perspective--or all of the above.
Even if the promise isn't always fulfilled, these efforts to go beyond the ordinary corrections of fact are welcome. Done straightforwardly and routinely, they could add immeasurably to the news media's credibility. But don't expect too much yet. In the newspaper game, rectification still takes a back seat to self-righteousness.
Some newsroom legwork in search of antecedents reminded one of what was said about foreign policy: it's easy enough on the brain. It's just hell on the feet. Senior editors, all stressing fidelity to the principle, betrayed a lack of clarity about who, what, when, less so the why of clarifications.
The first one in the library retrieval system is dated July 1977. "Corrections," it turns out, have been running in the paper since 1954.
Generally you see these items on page 2. But nothing is always around here. Executive editor Ben Bradlee once directed that all such material should run there, but allows now that printing one in the relevant section--e.g. Sports, Style--is acceptable. Most readers, I think, like some predictability and would prefer this information to appear in the same place.
Corrections work better than clarifications. Compare these from page 2 last April 15: Correction--"The small missile recommended by the president's advisory commission would weigh about 30,000 pounds, or 15 tons, not 30 tons as reported yesterday." Clarification--"An amendment to the nuclear freeze resolution that was sponsored by Rep. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) called for reducing nuclear weapons as the first objective listed in the resolution, but did not condition a freeze on prior reductions. The House defeated the amendment Wednesday." Presumably there was an earlier report in The Post, but you could be excused for not understanding in this case.
On May 21 a clarification referred "to an article Thursday (should have read Tuesday) that an Israeli commission found former defense minister Ariel Sharon 'personally responsible' for the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. The language of the report was simply: 'The minister of defense bears personal responsibility.'" The article was by Mary McGrory, May 17, and the reader would have been helped by being given the reference. The clarification was sought by some who telephoned Miss McGrory and, as is customary, was written by the news desk.
While the quote was clarified, the context was not. The commission report assigns "responsibility" to various Israeli government figures, including Mr. Sharon. It would not be accurate to say he "bears personal responsibility" to the exclusion of others. It would have been better, as Miss McGrory suggested later to me, had her reference been to "responsibility in" the massacres. As a Post story from Jerusalem on release of the report observed: "The (commission) report said the September massacre in the refugee camps . . . was the work of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia alone, dismissing reports that Israeli troops or other Lebanese militias were involved."
A clarification can read like a brief news item. This of May 24: "An Egyptian Embassy spokesman has declared that a story in Thursday's Post quoting President Hosni Mubarak on the Israeli-Lebanon accord misinterpreted his remarks; Mubarak did not indicate that Israel should pull out its troops from Lebanon without Syria having pledged that it would do likewise."
Writing from Beirut May 25 about a PLO official's criticism of Libyan leader Qadaffi, Post reporter Herb Denton said: "His remarks were a reference to the PLO'S defense of Beirut last summer." In a note to editors recommending a clarification, I said: "If interpretation . . . was necessary, something like 'PLO under attack in Beirut' would be less subjective--also more accurate."
Acknowledging that "under attack is more precise," assistant managing editor Jim Hoagland said also, "in my view your memo failed to make the case that there was a clear and significant difference between your wording and the reporter's . . . to make your case that . . . 'defend' is so egregiously wrong that it must be the subject of a correction/clarification you have to go to the political argument that I think is implied by the complaint in the story. The implication seems to be that the PLO inherently cannot have the right to have defended anything other than themselves, that Beirut is not theirs to defend. It is an argument, but I think it is a political rather than a semantical one."