Oops! How The Star deals with its mistakes

Newspapers used to have a standard response to outsiders’ criticisms: “We stand by our story.” Editors were expected to defend their reporters to the rest of the world, even if inside the newsroom they chewed them out for getting something wrong. As a young reporter, I always felt greatly comforted by that knowledge.

But times have changed and in many places, acknowledging errors is becoming more common. This may be in large part the result of the web, which allows bloggers and others to point out errors that a newspaper might otherwise be able to ignore. There’s also a new emphasis on being open with the public — a reflection no doubt of changes in societal values.

For better or worse, however, the trend toward more corrections hasn’t yet come to Kenya. If judged only by the number of corrections they run, the Star and its main competitors are remarkably error-free.

But as anyone who has ever worked on a newspaper knows, that’s just not possible. Errors are a fact of life in any newspaper if for no other reason than the speed with which a newspaper is produced. Add to that occasional carelessness, plus the hidden agendas of some of those involved in feeding information to reporters, and you have the makings of an inevitable number of mistakes, large and small.  And so, after a few recent Star bloopers, I thought it would be a good time to inquire into the paper’s policy on corrections.

Officially, the Star ethics code states, “Whenever it is noticed that a misleading, inaccurate or distorted article has been published, it must be corrected at the earliest opportunity.” This is similar to the wording in the Media Council’s Code of Conduct. But what does that really mean in practice? To answer that question I sat down with Star Editor Catherine Gicheru.

Gicheru says that she has no problem admitting an out-and-out error — for example when the paper, earlier this year, mixed up an MP’s wife with another woman of the same name who had been charged in a fraud case, the paper carried a page two ‘Apology’ the next day.

But Gicheru says that she tries hard to avoid corrections whenever possible. The main reason, she says, is her concern about the paper’s credibility. “If you have too many corrections, then your credibility starts to plummet,” she says.  And, she says, a lot depends on your competition: if they aren’t printing many corrections, you don’t want to print many either.

There are some weeks when she fields as many as three serious demands for corrections, she says, and other weeks when there are none. Her first line of defence is to let the complainant simply blow off steam. Often, she says, that, plus a sympathetic manner and a believable explanation, is enough to cause the caller to relent. “Most often people cool down and say, ‘Okay, I can understand how it happened,’” she says.

Some of her other time-tested responses are to offer the person the opportunity to write a letter or a commentary. Or, she may offer the prospect of a friendly story at a later date  to make up for the offending one.

Gicheru also favours a technique that I’ve also seen used elsewhere: finding a reason to run a follow-up story that corrects the error without ever acknowledging that one has been made. One such case involved a story about a security guard who falsely claimed to be a student who’d done brilliantly on the KCSE exam. After the story ran, the principal of the school that the guard had allegedly attended spoke up, as did the real student whom the guard was impersonating.

The Star, rather than issuing a correction, ran a second story quoting the principal and the real student and adding new details to the story.

Similarly, a May 26 page one splash ‘Raila locked out of jobs’ that was based on a misreading of a bill on appointments was followed the next day with a page three story that ran under the headline ‘Clause retains Raila’s role in new appointments’.

Gicheru says that if she decides that there is no other course but to print a correction, she will determine what to call it according to its severity. If it’s an honest mistake, it will be called a ‘clarification’. If it’s inexcusable, it will be called a ‘correction’. And if it has the potential to turn into a libel case, it will be billed as an ‘apology’.  “You’re really pleading at that point,” she says.

The Star’s new website presents an additional set of dilemmas. So far, the Star has been correcting errors in stories posted online without indicating that they have been altered, or, in cases where a simple correction of fact isn’t possible, it has removed the entire story.

Maybe it’s because I’m no longer in the hot seat myself, either as a reporter or an editor, but I personally would like to see more Star corrections (called, moreover, by their right name rather than the weasel word ‘clarification’).  I want to know when something I thought was the case turns out not to be, so I can adjust my understanding accordingly. I’d also welcome, whenever possible, a brief explanation of how the error occurred: A reporter misunderstood what someone said? Wrong information was given out at a press conference? Or perhaps a sub-editor inadvertently changed the meaning of a sentence while shortening it?

I understand Gicheru’s legitimate worry that if the Star prints a lot of corrections, especially by comparison with its competitors, it will be perceived as incompetent. But other papers have shifted to a ‘more is better’ policy and haven’t appeared to suffer. The Guardian in the UK, for example, runs a column of corrections every day. So does the New York Times: I counted nine on one recent day and eight on the next, ranging from a misspelled name to an inaccurate description of someone’s role in a military operation. My guess is that if one paper took the lead, not only would others follow but it would become so much the norm that readers would come to expect a box of daily corrections just as they expect the daily editorial and letters.

But I’d like to know what others think. So here’s a question for all you Star readers out there: If you were setting a corrections policy for the Star, what would it be and why: correct every error, avoid corrections if at all possible, or something in between? I’ll print some of the most interesting emails (please keep your responses short) in my next column.

This column was originally published in the Nairobi Star on June 23, 2011.

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