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T-J debacle: Opportunity to improve corrections policy

tjThe firing of the Telegraph-Journal’s editor today and the departure of its publisher is truly astonishing news.

Shakeups such as this don’t happen often — especially when they are related to publication of a single story. (That said, the T-J, under editor Shawna Richer, made a number of questionable moves in recent months.)

The New Brunswick news outlet, controlled by Irving-owned Brunswick News, announced this morning “there was no credible support” for the paper’s July 8, 2009 report that Prime Minister Stephen Harper “slipped the thin wafer that Catholics call ‘the host’ into his jacket pocket,” during a funeral mass for former Governor-General Romeo LeBlanc. That’s bad enough. But the paper went on to apologize to the bylined reporters on the story for adding “inaccurate” statements “in the editing process” without their knowledge. Wow.

Still, I’m waiting to see what the paper does with the original story in its archives.

The July 8 story has no note either on the T-J’s site or in the NewsScan archive database that I referenced early on July 29. No mention of the correction or the apology. And no hypertext link between the two. Granted, it’s been only 18 hours since the T-J issued the statement and a notation could still be coming in a data dump. However, the paper should have made any change in conjunction with its public statement.

How should news media deal generally with stories they have determined to be substantially wrong?

Reuters released its style guide, called the Handbook of Journalism, on July 9, 2009. It outlines its internal filing procedures when “the story is fundamentally flawed” and notes that “this will alert our online colleagues to pull each version of the story from websites and to contact online customers to ask them to remove it.”

But simply removing all online evidence of an egregious error may not be the best practice. How can the audience be convinced an apology is comprehensive if the source document no longer exists? How can future researchers learn of errors in published stories? Would it not represent a step backward from the days when microfilm gave us the full published record, warts and all?

The New York Times sets a higher standard on these matters. The Times website still hosts the full stories published by Jayson Blair, the reporter the Times revealed in 2003 as having committed “frequent acts of journalistic fraud.” In addition, it annotates each page of his stories with known inaccuracies. For example, this 2002 story on the investigation into the Washington-area sniper contains a long list of corrections.

Many news organizations still lag in fully linking corrections and apologies to the originally published items. Many more succumb to the temptation to simply wipe clean the source of the embarrassment. I hope this won’t be the case here. There is an opportunity for the T-J to turn a major embarrassment into a minor source of pride.

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