Corrections should be seen as good things, not weapons for crit­ics

The Community Connection - - OPINION - Gene Policin­ski Colum­nist Gene Policin­ski is pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the Free­dom Fo­rum In­sti­tute.

To err is hu­man, but, it would seem, corrections are not seen by many as divine. In­evitably, when jour­nal­ists in all kinds of medi­ums start fresh each day, some­times as­sem­bling the equiv­a­lent con­tent of a pa­per­back book, mis­takes will be made.

Once upon a time — iron­i­cally, in a time when a free press was held in higher pub­lic es­teem though mis­takes were made — corrections were made less fre­quently and, at least in news­pa­pers, of­ten placed in lesser-read spa­ces.

As first thought, ef­forts to cor­rect er­rors more quickly and promi­nently should bring both praise and sat­is­fac­tion from news con­sumers — and for some, it does. But for oth­ers, the mere ex­is­tence of corrections (and let’s count the lesser cousin, “clar­i­fi­ca­tions” too) are signs of me­dia malfea­sance, proof that so-called “fake news” ex­ists or is grounds for on­line ver­sions of pub­lic flog­gings.

There’s no ques­tion that news op­er­a­tions should be called out when mis­takes are made. So­cial me­dia has made that call­ing much eas­ier and much louder.

Case in point: The New York Times’ cor­rec­tion in print edi­tions af­ter the Emmy Awards, not­ing “A pic­ture cap­tion ... us­ing in­for­ma­tion from a photo agency, misiden­ti­fied a woman pre­sent­ing the award for out­stand­ing lead ac­tress in a com­edy se­ries. The woman was An­gela Bas­sett, not Omarosa Mani­gault New­man.” An ear­lier tweet from the Times said that while the cap­tion er­ror was first made by Getty, the photo provider for the image, it was a mis­take that should have been spot­ted and cor­rected by the Times.

The Twit­ter­sphere lit up as crit­ics slammed the news­pa­per and its web­site for sins rang­ing from em­bar­rass­ing care­less­ness to the much more se­ri­ous re­minder of the er­ror’s racial over­tones. One on­line post asked, “Do all dark-skinned black women look the same to your ed­i­tors??”

There is value to be found in con­sid­er­ing the full spec­trum of those crit­i­cisms, par­tic­u­larly if we can avoid sim­ple so­cial me­dia “pil­ing on” that can dis­tract from that value.

But from photo cap­tions and fac­tual er­rors to pla­gia­rism and in­vented sources, what other pro­fes­sion fixes mis­steps so quickly, so pub­licly and so thor­oughly? An­swer: Few come to mind.

Yet, even as such corrections take place daily, in pages and on­line, from news or­ga­ni­za­tions large and small, those who would weaken, re­strict or even do away with a free press find trac­tion in such open ad­mis­sions. Bet­ter to con­tinue in a com­bined ef­fort to make news re­ports as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble — and to ex­tend such self-re­views to so­cial me­dia posts.

An un­for­tu­nate truth about the un­prece­dented Age of In­for­ma­tion in which we now live is the huge amount of mis­in­for­ma­tion or out­right fab­ri­ca­tion that now clogs the sys­tems bring­ing us news and in­for­ma­tion. So let’s end with a very proac­tive step by the Times in which, on Sept. 17, it in­vited the pub­lic to join its ef­forts to avoid mis­in­for­ma­tion.

The item, “If You See Dis­in­for­ma­tion Ahead of the Midterms, We Want to Hear From You,” says that “as Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions ap­proach, The New York Times is look­ing for ex­am­ples of on­line ads, posts and texts that con­tain po­lit­i­cal dis­in­for­ma­tion or false claims and are be­ing de­lib­er­ately spread on in­ter­net plat­forms to try to in­flu­ence lo­cal, statewide, and fed­eral elec­tions.”

“Times jour­nal­ists are hop­ing to use your tips to ad­vance our re­port­ing. If you see a sus­pi­cious post or text, please take a screen­shot and up­load it” us­ing a form pro­vided by the news­pa­per.

Mak­ing corrections in a very pub­lic way will not re­store all pub­lic con­fi­dence in a free press — that may be bet­ter achieved by not mak­ing mis­takes in the first place — but fix­ing er­rors and tak­ing proac­tive steps to sort out de­lib­er­ate mis­in­for­ma­tion ought to be en­cour­aged, not weaponized.

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