Stand Corrected

Correction: El Nacional sneakily got ahead of me by running a correction for the article I accused them of not correcting, mooting pretty much this whole post. The one bright spot is, I didn’t need to change the title!

Sigh…esta semana no pego una…



"We journalists are human, and as such, we make mistakes. The trouble is that everybody hears about them, because they end up in the newspaper." 

This bon mot is from a tweet by Alejandro Hinds, the journo whose by-line graced the Gazapo del Año – El Nacional’s logic-bending front page (above the fold!) claim that purchasing power has dropped 162% in eleven years.

Now, without wanting to make too, too much of this one incident, I want to say this:

Of course journalists and editors are just as human as everyone else on the planet. And of course they will make mistakes. The real question is, how are you going to deal with them? Because a complex organization like a daily newspaper needs some institutional way of processing mistakes, holding people who make them accountable, and dealing squarely with the public when they’re made.

In English-language print journalism, there’s an elaborate mechanism for dealing with mistakes: the correction. Casual readers have no clue about the institutional machinery behind those little correction boxes they get in page six of their morning papers. But journalists sure do. By the time you see a correction in a newspaper, a mistake has been brought to an editor’s attention, a meeting has been held, the story has been re-reported by a different journalist, the facts re-ascertained and the whole thing has gone into the offending journalist’s permanent file.

As a journalist, you can’t not care. Your correction history will come up. It will come up when management is considering promotions or assignment to a sensitive beat. It will come up at salary reviews. It will come up when you hunt for another job. Too many corrections over too many sloppy mistakes and your career will suffer. Everybody inside the newspaper knows this, and so everybody’s on guard. Not because of any pure-hearted concern for the Noble Truth, but simply because piling on corrections sucks. For your career. For your reputation. For your standing in the office.

I’ve seen foreign journos go through the process of having to run a correction, let me tell you, it’s not something they enjoy. 

Now, back to that El Nacional blunder. I try to picture what would’ve happened up north in a similar situation. We’re talking about the lead story in the whole paper: front page, above the fold. This is the most sought after real estate in journalism, the spot journos are meant to be competing for. You’re using that space to run a claim that wasn’t just false, but actually mathematically impossible!

In a first world newspaper, this would be a firing offense. Or, if not a firing offense, one with serious consequences for the careers of all involved. It would set off an intensive review by management: what happened? How? How can we avoid it happening again? The correction would be only the beginning. There’d be hell to pay.

In Venezuela, not only is the original story never corrected, but the entire thing is put to bed after a single, weak ass, non-apology-apology delivered via tweet by the journalist involved. Management review? Hell to pay? Qué?!

El Nacional does have a "Defensoría del Lector" – a readers’ Ombudsman – and I guess he does sometimes shine a spotlight on serious errors. Does the prospect of being named and shamed by the Ombudsman keep El Nacional’s journos and editors in check? I don’t see it…

But then, we already have a word for a journalist with "no real incentive to check". We call that a blogger. ¿O no?