The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Taylor Lorenz said an editor was to blame. Is that okay?

(Washington Post illustration)
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UPDATE: The fallout from the Lorenz story continues: On Thursday, members of The Post’s features staff held a meeting with Post Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, Senior Managing Editor Cameron Barr, Managing Editor of Diversity and Inclusion Krissah Thompson and Managing Editor of Digital News Kat Downs Mulder. At issue was a letter from features staffers citing an article in the Daily Beast identifying Deputy Features Editor David Malitz as the one who inserted the mistake about comment requests to YouTube content creators and reporting that the affair “may cost” Malitz a promotion to top features editor.

According to three sources at the meeting, one reporter pressed Buzbee on specifics, saying that colleagues had learned that Buzbee had offered Malitz the job on Thursday, June 2, and then rescinded the offer the following Monday. Buzbee, according to these sources, didn’t deny the timeline but insisted that Malitz was in no way punished for his mistake. Staffers who spoke at the meeting, according to the sources, were furious with Buzbee’s decision and asked whether it could be reversed. She was resistant to that suggestion, say the sources.

A Post spokeswoman said, “We will not be commenting.”

Washington Post staff writer Taylor Lorenz on Saturday posted a Twitter thread declaring that it was not she who inserted an erroneous line into her article. It was her editor. “I did not write the line and was not aware it was inserted,” wrote Lorenz.

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“This should have been a small correction for a miscommunication, but it turned into a multi-day media cycle, intentionally aimed at discrediting the Washington Post and me.”

One takeaway from Lorenz’s thread was unmistakable: “In a series of tweets, Lorenz blames her editor for having inserted the error into her story and says she is the victim of a ‘bad faith’ campaign,” tweeted CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy.

Blaming editors for mistakes sounds like a craven act, and indeed it can be. But it also happens occasionally at prominent U.S. media outlets. Lorenz’s pointed tua culpa is at odds with the spirit of Post policy, however. And in this case, it received approval from The Post’s masthead, according to a source at the paper. A Post spokesperson says, “We provided input that we asked she take into consideration.”

The imbroglio kicked off a week ago with the publication of Lorenz’s article on the Internet content creators who thrived from the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial. The original version said that two creators — Alyte Mazeika and the anonymous ThatUmbrellaGuy — had been contacted for comment. FoxNews.com reported that the paper deleted that claim with a stealth edit. The Post published a series of corrections and an editor’s note attempting to address the situation. It now reads:

EDITOR'S NOTE
The first published version of this story stated incorrectly that Internet influencers Alyte Mazeika and ThatUmbrellaGuy had been contacted for comment before publication. In fact, only Mazeika was asked, via Instagram. After the story was published, The Post continued to seek comment from Mazeika via social media and queried ThatUmbrellaGuy for the first time. During that process, The Post removed the incorrect statement from the story but did not note its removal, a violation of our corrections policy. The story has been updated to note that Mazeika declined to comment for this story and ThatUmbrellaGuy could not be reached for comment.
A previous version of this story also inaccurately attributed a quote to Adam Waldman, a lawyer for Johnny Depp. The quote described how he contacted some Internet influencers and has been removed.

Hot Air’s John Sexton pointed out that by Lorenz’s own account, she didn’t contact either YouTuber for comment until after the story went live — a circumstance in conflict with the editor’s note, and which indicates that the request for comment to Mazeika occurred prior to publication via Instagram.

We’ve asked The Post for clarification on this point, because it matters: If The Post can’t nail down the facts in an editor’s note, where else should we trust it to do so? “That stands as is,” says a Post spokesperson. “We won’t be able to get into what the internal discussions were.”

Another question hanging over the editor’s note relates to policy. What if the first iteration had asserted that the mistake came off the keyboard of an editor? Any such declaration would grind against a long-standing provision of The Post’s standards guide, which reads, “We do not attribute blame to individual reporters or editors (e.g. ‘because of a reporting error’ or ‘because of an editing error’). But we may note that an error was the result of a production problem or because incorrect information came to us from a trusted source (wire services, individuals quoted, etc.).” The policy controls how the newspaper articulates corrections and editor’s notes, and has a more tenuous sway over tweets and other statements from The Post.

In a 2006 column, then-Post ombudsman Deborah Howell traced the philosophical roots of The Post’s aversion to “due to an editing error.” Then-executive editor Len Downie told Howell, “Reporters get bylines and prizes when they do well, and editors don’t.” Peter Baker, then a White House correspondent at The Post, countered, “Writers are held accountable because our names are on the bylines. Why should writers be held accountable when it’s not their fault?”

Correct, says the New York Times. Close readers of that newspaper know that general assignment reporter Christine Chung did not bungle the status of Lincoln College in Illinois, which is a predominantly Black college, not a historically Black college, as her May 9 story originally reported. That’s because a correction frontally addresses the provenance of the mistake: “Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified Lincoln College as a historically Black college. It is a predominantly Black college, not a Department of Education-listed H.B.C.U.”

Philip B. Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at the Times, tells the Erik Wemple Blog via email, “[T]hat has long been our normal practice. It’s simply an effort to be fair to reporters — whose names are on the story — and shield them from criticism if they aren’t to blame for a mistake.”

Many outlets, including CNN, the Associated Press, USA Today, Slate, MSNBC, the Daily Beast — and, yes, even The Post! — have at least dabbled in this formulation (though a CNN spokeswoman notes that it’s not policy to attribute mistakes to editors, and an AP spokeswoman writes via email, “Corrections generally focus on what is being corrected”).

Decades ago, The Post’s institutional approach to corrections made more sense. The work of reporters back then wasn’t flyspecked on social media sites, dissected for mistakes and repurposed for the next instance of wrongdoing, or alleged wrongdoing. These days, it is. If the argument for The Post’s policy were ever correct, it’s not anymore.

And if The Post revisits its correction policy, it may want to lay down a guideline or two about how its journalists respond to social media brouhahas. “We have a responsibility to recognize these bad faith campaigns for what they are and when these sorts of things do and do not warrant acknowledgment,” wrote Lorenz after the uproar over her Depp-Heard piece. She also rapped CNN: “This type of coverage is so irresponsible & dangerous,” Lorenz wrote on Twitter. “It’s misrepresenting my words to amplify a manufactured outrage campaign by right wing media & radicalized influencers, which is driving a vicious harassment/smear campaign against me. CNN is gleefully piling on.”

That outrage works much better when a 135-word editor’s note isn’t hanging over your article.

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