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Corrections: When the News Media Make Mistakes

Stephen Hess

Tuesday, February 27, 1996, was a particularly bad night for Ted Koppel, the anchor of ABC’s Nightline—perhaps the worst night in the history of that distinguished program. The program reported that Bob Dole had suffered “an embarrassing third-place finish in today’s Arizona primary.” Said Koppel, “It is still far too early to be drafting a funeral oration for Bob Dole’s presidential ambitions, but the candidate is not looking well, politically speaking.” The report was incorrect: Dole finished second. (Koppel later apologized to Dole.) And the program concluded with Koppel apologizing “to all the Buchanans” for an earlier statement that Pat Buchanan’s father “had been a regular listener to the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin.”

Media scholar D. Charles Whitney rightly contends “that nothing is more crucial to a news organization than its reputation for accuracy and that nothing is more crucial to establishing this reputation than the honest, timely and public admissions of errors.” Yet, notes Whitney, while consumers tend to be most concerned with “subjective errors,” news organizations are more concerned with “factual, objective errors,” which they are more likely to correct (Whitney 1986:3ת). Two Nightline stories illustrate this distinction.

The profile of Buchanan on Friday, February 23, is complex and hard-hitting by TV standards. (I appear in a short interview but not in the part of the program that is controversial.) The broadcast’s first segment focuses on the candidate’s youth. Koppel speaks in a voice-over: “If there has always been an aura of certainty around Pat Buchanan, it was first nourished at home and here, at the Blessed Sacrament School. The Holy Cross nuns who ran the school conveyed the strongest sense of right and wrong and loyalty.” A moment later, Time magazine’s Lance Morrow, who was two years behind Buchanan in high school, opines, “The stability of that universe accounts for a lot of Buchanan’s worldview today. I think he feels that that universe was betrayed, and there’s a sense of something gone very much awry, and that it has to be set right by returning . . . to the universe of those certitudes.” “Buchanan’s sense of certitude,” Koppel narrates, “also derived from the other imposing force in his life, his father, Bill ‘Pop’ Buchanan, an arch-conservative, a supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy. Buchanan Senior also listened to the bigoted and isolationist radio orator Father Coughlin, who stirred populist passions and controversy on the eve of World War II.” Koppel explains Coughlin’s anti-Semitism. Morrow adds, “There was anti-Semitism to some extent among the students, and I think that it was something of the traditional Catholic — well, the very bad tradition of the church, of the, almost of the ‘They killed Christ’ variety, the 2,000-year-old blood libel.” Nightline reporters interview a Jewish neighbor who “remembers being called a Christ-killer and being beaten up by some of the younger Buchanan brothers. Not Pat.” And another Jewish former neighbor says, “that was never my experience.”

In response to the report, Bay Buchanan, the candidate’s sister and campaign manager, called Koppel an “anti-Catholic bigot” during an emotional news conference, contending that it was a “smear” against the Catholic Church to suggest that a Catholic school in Washington encouraged anti-Semitism in the 1940s and 1950s. Michael A. Ferguson, executive director of Catholic Campaign for America, also sent Koppel a letter accusing him of attacking “the Catholic Church in an effort to paint a negative picture of a presidential candidate based on his religious beliefs.”

Nightline’s retraction related only to the narrow point of whether the Senior Buchanan listened regularly to Father Coughlin. Other news organizations have reported this, says Koppel. “Still, we should have checked it out for ourselves. The Buchanan family insists that the story is not true, and they, after all, should know. My apologies to all the Buchanans.”

In the Washington Post’s account of the Koppel-Buchanan exchange, the broadcaster defended his program as describing “the climate of the times” during the candidate’s youth. “I sense that there is some confusion out there between being critical of Pat Buchanan and what is perceived as being critical of the church. There is not a line in there that is critical of the church as it exists today.” As for Morrow’s words, “To suggest that the pre-Vatican II church was bigoted is not intended to offend anyone, it is simply a statement of historical fact.”

Where Dole finished in the Arizona primary is a rather easier case. Nightline was factually wrong. But the basic premise of the analysis was entirely correct, Koppel told the New York Times. “Even if we had said he would finish second, the program would be fundamentally the same.” (CNN and CBS also admitted that they wrongly interpreted the exit polls in Arizona.)

Author

Thus journalists draw a line between objective and subjective error. The conventions of American journalism dictate that subjective error, errors of analysis or emphasis, errors of a raised eyebrow or harsh adjective, have to be addressed by other means: letters to the editor and op-ed columns in newspapers, making time available to aggrieved parties on TV.

Actually, television’s history of on-air corrections of even factual errors is discouraging. Bill Monroe recounts how NBC’s Today show started an experimental “letter to the editor” segment in the early 1980s that the network correspondents detested and, “to keep his ‘talent’ happy,” the producer eventually dropped (Monroe 1997:7). Emerson Stone, a former senior CBS News executive who writes an ethics column for Communicator, says, “When the occasional correction does appear, news volunteerism is a rare reason. In general the error was just too prominent to ignore in the community, a public commotion arose, or someone important complained.” Structurally, it is more difficult to work a correction into a TV program than into a newspaper. But Stone chides his former colleagues: “What, no creativity? Can’t think of a way to make corrections interesting?” He argues, “Matters big enough to get into one broadcast – are big enough to be corrected in the next” (Stone 1995: 19).

Whitney’s 1986 study of corrections at twelve newspapers finds that “most papers are correcting their errors when they find them, and most have policies of correcting them in fixed places in the paper under standing headlines, making them accessible to readers” (Whitney 1986:9). He suggests that papers would benefit from having their correction policies in writing. “For if corrections are to promote accountability, a paper’s policy must be known to anyone on the paper in a position to make an error and to anyone outside the paper who seeks a correction or clarification” (Whitney 1986:13). Floyd Abrams, the prominent First Amendment lawyer, argues that newspaper corrections should carry the names of both the writer and the principal editor who handled the story (Winship 1996:5).

Geneva Overholser, the Washington Post ombudsman, points out that her paper has a written policy. The problem, as she sees it, is otherwise. “Talk to Post reporters and you’ll get an earful about how correcting is far from encouraged. If no one complains, don’t raise it with your editors, they say they have learned; those editors don’t want their bosses alerted that mistakes have been made. . . . And getting an editor to acknowledge that there really is a mistake can itself be a struggle.”

Despite the exceptional self-criticism by the San Jose Mercury News of its series claiming CIA complicity in the drug trade, the three most difficult words in journalism’s vocabulary remain, “We were wrong.”

References

—Monroe, Bill. 1997. “Grave Mistakes” (Letter to the editor), Columbia Journalism Review (May/June): 7.

—Stone, Emerson. 1995. “On-Air Corrections,” Communicator (Mar.):19㬐.

—Whitney, D. Charles. 1986. “Begging Your Pardon: Corrections and Corrections Policies at Twelve U.S. Newspapers” (Research Report), Gannett Center for Media Studies.

—Winship, Thomas. 1996. “Drumbeat against Press Drones On,” Editor & Publisher (April 6).

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