Wednesday, April 28, 2004

When to run a correction

Slate's Jack Shafer discusses when papers should correct the mistakes of their sources.

For example, the Washington Post published a story in 2002 that the administration suspected that al-Qaeda had received VX nerve agent from Iraqis. (Still with me?) That turned out not to be true, but no one ever heard about the claim again.

Does the paper owe it to readers to follow up on that story? At what point should a reporter go back to the sources and say, hey, how 'bout that VX?

The reporter on the story, Barton Gellman, makes a good point: There isn't a "nothing new here" section of the paper every day to give updates on these things. Writers are busy covering news. But he agrees that he should have followed up -- he says six to nine months later.

It's easy to let those stories slip under the radar (how many stories do you think Gellman had written in the nine following months?), but copy editors can help. How many times have you heard a colleague say: "What ever happened to that girl who was hit by that car?" "Did we ever find out how that new business was doing?" "What's the status on that project?"

Finding out can be as easy as a phone call or e-mail, or it could spark a much-needed folo.


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