Nobody enjoys being corrected -- newspaper reporters and editors included. Many readers who have built up a friendly feeling toward a home-town paper and its writers over many years of service find their warm feelings turning chilly when they try to point out an error or unfairness in a news story.
The first problem is making effective contact. The procedure recommended by Post Managing Editor Leonard Downie Jr. is to call the reporter who wrote the story. If the reader is right, the reporter should acknowledge the error and start the correction process. But if he or she disagrees -- or more likely, is out on a story -- ask for the editor in charge of the section.
If the editor is unavailable, or doesn't call back, or doesn't agree with the complaint, call the Ombudsman and get a second opinion. It could lead to his intervention in the quest for a correction. The Post has tried to help readers find corrections by putting them daily on page A2 or A3.
My view is that readers are consumers and entitled to a sound product. An error, even though it may be only a slip among the hundreds of thousands of words each day, is a defect, and a correction is usually appropriate. In addition, subsequent users of news clippings should be alerted that there was an error and be given the correct fact.
Corrections should be crafted with care. A recent Post correction about World War II war correspondent Ernie Pyle compounded the error by describing him as a photographer. An effort is made to keep them brief, but some are so short they are exercises in cryptography, failing to note which story they relate to or even the section in which the story appeared.
For example, after the annual federal budget proposals were published in January, taking up column after column with figures, charts and graphs, there were a number of corrections. But they were so brief that several reference librarians called to ask for additional details so they could make proper note.
Sometimes publications use "clarifications" to straighten out misunderstandings, but occasionally these are misused. An example: The May 20 Newsweek carried a "clarification" about the former mayor of Providence, R.I. He had been reported by Newsweek as having been "convicted and forced from office for pummeling his estranged wife's alleged lover with a log." The clarification said he did not actually hit the man, only threatened to do so. The original article also said $16 million in Providence tax money had been "discovered missing from the city till." The clarification said some councilmen thought such an amount may have been "misappropriated," but no such amount was actually missing from the city till. Clarification, my eye!
Occasionally, reporters and editors are confronted with demands from readers or special interest organizations who are allegedly seeking fairness, but really insisting on favoritism. They are like self-appointed editors who want to see happenings reported strictly from their point of view. Some have been known to overlook stories in order to further their criticism.
For example, last June The Post carried a report from its London correspondent with the headline, "Article in Britain Links Ill-Fated KAL Flight to Intelligence Mission." It was a provocative idea raised in the British magazine, Defence Attache, but Michael Getler's careful report also included a statement by British and other sources disagreeing with the thesis and a warning that some sources suggested "it might be part of a Soviet disinformation effort." Readers were clearly on notice to be skeptical.
Then on Nov. 20, The Post ran a story headlined, "British Magazine Apologizes for KAL Flight Spy Story," reporting a public apology and cash payment to Korean Airlines by the British magazine. The Post item quoted the magazine as saying, "There is no foundation for any suggestion that either Korean Airlines or any of its staff on the aircraft concerned took part in a spy mission."
Despite this article, five months later The Post was attacked by a publication for not correcting the original article and two Post readers wrote letters. No mention was made of the Nov. 20 story and its four-column headline -- one that could hardly have escaped the attention of readers interested in the KAL incident. Unfair!