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Correction goes viral, blame is misplaced

By Andy Alexander

When The Post corrects an error, the institution takes the blame. The Post Stylebook says: “We do not assign internal blame for a mistake, such as distinguishing between reporting and editing errors. Ours is a collective enterprise; we share responsibility for our successes, and for our errors.”

But there are times when it might make sense to bend the rules. Take the recent correction that read: “A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.”

The story in question was by Akeya Dickson, an editorial aide who is not one of The Post's music writers. It referred to a song by Public Enemy titled “911 Is a Joke,” which criticizes emergency response units for taking too long to respond to 911 calls in black communities. But the story that appeared in The Post referred to “9/11,” leaving the clear impression that Public Enemy felt the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks were a joke.

It didn’t take long for the correction to go viral. Dickson was widely ridiculed on media Web sites and by bloggers and Tweeters. How could anyone write about hip-hop for The Washington Post and be so clueless that she wouldn't know what the popular Public Enemy song was about, they asked? And wasn’t it readily apparent since Public Enemy released the song more than a decade before the 9/11 attacks?

In fact, it wasn’t Dickson’s fault. The story she submitted said “911.” But a copy editor, unfamiliar with the song, changed it to “9/11” and failed to check with Dickson about the change.

Before she knew it, Dickson was being skewered online. Wonkette noted the correction beneath the headline: “Why WaPo Neocons Should Not Write About Hip Hop.” Huffington Post blared a headline: “Washington Post Forced to Correct Report That Public Enemy Called 9/11 a Joke.” The Washington CityPaper and others subsequently wrote about it. The correction was Tweeted nearly 2,000 times, by Dickson’s count.

Dickson was mortified. “You want to be able to defend yourself and you can’t,” she told me.

The error was made by veteran Post copy editor Maria Henriques. “As with any correction, I’m very sorry about it,” she said. Henriques said she was not familiar with Public Enemy or the song. She changed “911” to “9/11,” but failed to note it to Akeya as they went over other copy editing changes in her story.

Dickson’s immediate editor, Chanda Washington, said she submitted the correction without trying to specify that the error was made on the copy desk. “I didn’t urge that we do that, because I knew it wasn’t our policy,” she said.

Dickson wrote a first-person piece about her experience that she pitched (unsuccessfully) to The Post’s Outlook section. In it, she talked about what it was like to suddenly be the focus of media attention. Those who wrote about the correction “were less interested in the facts... the facts being that it was an error inadvertently made by a copy editor.”

“What made all of this ridiculous to me on a larger scale is that I am a black woman from the south side of Chicago who attended Howard University. Both myself and my father were raised on and within the hip-hop culture.”

"This isn’t about trying to throw anyone under the bus, or deflect attention off of myself,” she wrote. “What happened with this story and correction speaks to a cultural divide that we’re actively working to close. We’re not there, but we’re making moves in that direction. Don’t get me wrong; there were several white people at the paper who understood the gravity of the mistake. The Post, which contrary to popular belief is not run by a bunch of old Harvard-educated white men, [is] instead helmed by men and women of various racial backgrounds and ages. It is a family, one that I grew up working in while I was a college student, and one that I’m happy to write for now. A mistake was made and I had to ride with the word of the family.”

By Andy Alexander  | December 11, 2009; 5:38 PM ET
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I do not expect much from Mr. Alexander. I know that he is not an actual Ombudsman, and that he views his job as having two dimensions:

one, protect the Post and its editors and writers from any charge made by normal readers.

Two, Mr. Alexander strives to make the Post more friendly to Rush Limbaugh and the right wing critics. In that role he actively calls for Affirmative Action hiring for conservatives and stresses the need for the post to join in right wing lynch mobs when they go after ACORN.

Posted by: wapoisrightwingrag | December 12, 2009 2:40 AM | Report abuse

This column could benefit from editing.

Mr Alexander quotes Ms. Dickson verbatim, and apparently Ms. Dickson speaks in some street patois. But isn't the paper for actual readers who speak English? And what is this sentence where Alexander writes down what Dickson says supposed to mean:

"A mistake was made and I had to ride with the word of the family."

"I had to ride with the word of the family"? Is that Ms. Dickson showing her bona fides in Hip Hop Ology?

From Sarah Palin the Science writer to the He-Men War Lover's Club endless attacks on President Obama for not being enthusiastic enough about war to Ms. Dockson's "A mistake was made and I had to ride with the word of the family," the Washington Post cannot go out of business fast enough.

When the Post was a great newspaper it was proudly liberal and no writer was forced "to ride with the word of the family" because the paper was written in English.

I lament the death of the Post, killed by people like Hiatt and Alexander and Dickson. maybe Sarah Palin will tell us what "A mistake was made and I had to ride with the word of the family" means.

In the meantime don't ever change, Mr. Alexander. You are making Ms. Howell look better with every passing day.

Posted by: wapoisrightwingrag | December 12, 2009 2:52 AM | Report abuse

Thank you, wapoisrightwingrag, for your comment. You've said everything I was thinking and wrote it better than I could, saving me the time and effort.

Posted by: tbarksdl | December 12, 2009 7:04 AM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Hiatt,

The buck should stop somewhere near you, especially when we see a pattern of headlines meant to incite, not inform.

Yours is a tough business, I know, but your leadership needs some internal repair. Please read this JOURNALIST's statement and post it around your newsroom in in your heart:

JIM LEHRER: "People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism. Well, yes, there are. And here they are:

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

Here is how I closed a speech about our changes to our PBS stations family last spring:

"We really are the fortunate ones in the current tumultuous world of journalism right now. When we wake up in the morning, we only have to decide what the news is and how we are going to cover it. We never have to decide who we are and why we are there."

That is the way it has been for these nearly 35 years. And that's the way it will be forever. And for the NewsHour, there will always be a forever.

Posted by: rowens1 | December 12, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Paul Kane's puff piece on Sen. Ben Nelson repeats and highlights the long-discredited disinformation that Gov. Casey was barred from speaking at the '92 Democratic convention because of his views on abortion. (The reality is that a number of prominent Dems against choice DID speak. But unlike Governor Casey, they supported the party's nominee, Bill Clinton. For some reason the DNC took the odd position that people who wouldn't support the nominee wouldn't get to speak at the nomination convention. This was reported in the Washington Post at the time.)

So we should assume that this spreading of lies is an institutional error, and not just Paul Kane's?

Posted by: edallan | December 12, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

The fact is that there are different levels of blame in anything the Post does. Because the Post represents itself as a newspaper it has a duty to provide a "free market" for legitimate opinion, ideas, and information. In this modern age, where people have access to the internet, your paper becomes valuable as a clearing house and repository for reports, for facts, and for reporting, which involves fact checking. That is where you are falling down, specifically as an Ombudsman, and generally as an institution.

You have a moral, civic and ethical duty to fact check all these ideas. It's not merely the "copy editor's fault" that 9/11 was changed to 911, it is a sloppy editorial staff which ultimately means that it is a corporate responsibility, when material facts are obliterated or distorted.

When you accept editorial content that is patently full of lies and misleading spin, that states more about your editorial policy than any failures by a copy editor. Sure, if someone pays you to present his side of a story you have a duty to do so. However, what you don't have to do is to do so uncritically. Your "Post Partisan" is a step in the right direction. However, lately you present editorial content as news, without even fact checking that! and fall below the worst standards of traditional journalism in the process.

The one standard that you should not let slip is the obligation to reporting the truth. This used to be called an obligation to objectivity. Sure Republicans and Democrats will have differences of opinions over what facts mean,...

....but when someone presents something as fact it should be a fact, and even if it is an opinion piece, you should publish a side note critiquing those assertions and not treat all opinions about the piece as equal. If it is supposedly news that information should be in the content. If you don't want to include everything in the newspaper you could put a note into the piece "for details on this see such and such a web-page" and put your critiques there. The critiques should focus on fact checking -- before publishing an article!

It is possible for both sides of an argument to be lying. A newspaper worth its salt would publish a third article noting the "FactCheck" actual issues. Fact checking and guaranteeing the integrity of the news is one way to guarantee readership. At least from people who care about their civic responsibilities. It's also a way to educate and inform the readership and cull out the nonsense that is often published by extremists without engaging in suppression of content.

This your newspaper is not doing very well and this makes it a degraded market for ideas.

Posted by: chris_holte | December 12, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

" woman from the south side of Chicago who attended Howard university..."


Howard university? Or Howard University? So whose screw-up was that? Dickson's, Alexander's or the copy editor's?

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | December 12, 2009 11:17 PM | Report abuse

Reader 'Water...' caught a typo on a Blog, but do not think Mr. Alexander's dazzling mind is anything less than fully on display here as elsewhere.

For Ms. Dickson, alas!, she can only say that she is keeping punctuation real, so to say and authentically Howard whether Howard U. or Howard u.

Once again a chance for readers to discover for themselves that Mr. Alexander can type what he hears verbatim and not worry about what "A mistake was made and I had to ride with the word of the family" means.

Posted by: wapoisrightwingrag | December 13, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Any comment on the different headlines and locations for the 2 recent stories on the NAEP math scores for DCPS.
The first one, wow DCPS is no longer last, appeared frontpage and was followed by a sycophantic editorial.
Sunday's story by Bill Turque on the differences between the scores of whites and AAs, and the lower income group, had a positive (for Mrs. Rhee ) headline in print (in Metro) but a less positive headline on line.

Posted by: edlharris | December 13, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Congrats on being named The Correction of the Year!

"This year’s winner is without question amusing — not to mention embarrassing for the news organization the published it — in that it demonstrates a certain amount of cultural/musical ignorance. But it earns Correction of the Year honors because of what happened after it was published. This Washington Post correction inspired an amusing Twitter hashtag, which saw people come together to come up with imagined corrections. It’s Correction of the Year because it communicates that people notice and care about corrections, and because it demonstrates the participatory potential being unleashed by the Internet."

Posted by: subwayguy | December 16, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

Oh I thought this was just a funny mix up. Now it seems its a diversity teaching moment. Let me know if there are ever any funny mix ups.

Posted by: lostinthemiddle | December 17, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

@ wapoisrightwingrag - Did you bother reading today's blog or do you just post the same comment on every ombudsman's contribution. I suspect the latter as your comment has nothing to do with a writer being blamed for an error by a copy editor. Perhaps you should bother reading before commenting. Nah, too much work.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | December 19, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

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