Correction goes viral, blame is misplaced
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.”
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