Journalism and Corrections: The Importance of Knowing When You’re Wrong
Recently, I had to make a significant correction on a Facebook post made on my personal profile. It wasn’t a column, but it was something that had to be swiftly addressed and resolved in any event. I formally apologized to the individual who was haphazardly mentioned in my post. I could’ve easily made my point without invoking their name and raising implications about their political opinions. This person also happens to be a personal friend.
Out of respect for them, I’m not going to re-litigate what the original post was about.
In a journalistic capacity, making mistakes aren’t good. In addition to negatively impacting a reporter’s personal and professional credibility, mistakes can have far-reaching ramifications for those who bear the brunt of them. Even if your mistake is a typo or some oversight that may seem insignificant at first glance, words matter and words have consequences. The only ethical option would be to address the mistake, make the correction, learn from it and become more adapt at making fewer mistakes. The best way to offset the damage done is to take these mistakes on before they fester and become a perilous situation.
The irony of this message is not lost on me.
I wrote a book about an organization and a group of people who not only have made a lot of mistakes, they knowingly published material falsehoods oftentimes at the expense of their political enemies. Even though I published my book and more people recognize their pattern of deceit, they still commit to the very same practices that led them to a libel lawsuit they ultimately lost. Their trajectory for professional growth is nonexistent.
But we can certainly learn from their example as a cautionary tale.
They don’t like to admit to being wrong because it means they have to face down every instance when they got their facts wrong or outright lied to their readers. And because they’ve never bothered to do that forensic analysis of their so-called “reporting” and competently apply a checks and balances on themselves, admitting failure became an insurmountable task that would pose a clear, existential threat to their fragile ego. That’s why it’s so important to review, correct, modify or retract as soon as an objection is raised.
Of course, no one likes to admit they screwed up. I certainly don’t. But we don’t have to necessarily wallow in nauseating remorse over it.
We should take pride in our ability to recognize our missteps and hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability. There’s nothing wrong in recognizing our imperfections. We may be intent on reporting and publishing accurately, but we would be deluding ourselves if we pretended that we hit home runs every time we faced down a pitch.
It’s also important for us to put ourselves in the shoes of people we write about. We should ask the question: How would we feel if we were adversely affected by the error? I think journalists are definitely capable of showing compassion in a typically dispassionate, sterile news-gathering environment like a newsroom. Instead of compassion leading to bias, it could be used as a powerful incentive to be as thorough and mindful as possible when crafting a story. I was recently reminded of the importance of compassion.
And finally, be better. We can always be better. In addition to fixing our mistakes, we can easily tweak our practices to ensure those mistakes don’t happen in the future. For instance, I recently gathered data from someone on people search websites that don’t always have the most accurate, up-to-date information. I could have reached out to the person I researched, thereby significantly reducing the possibility of making an egregious error. Now, I’m going to make that effort to reach out on a more consistent basis.
Our known purveyors of “fake news” and sensationalism will not have a change in heart. Narcissism will always be the antithesis of self-awareness. But if we move in the opposite direction by recognizing when we make mistakes and owning up to them as part of an ongoing effort to self-improve, we will thrive.
Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.