Attribution In A Correction? Not Kosher, Journal

September 30th, 2010 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Tracy Dingmann

In the world of journalism, attribution is a tricky thing.

In certain cases, the situation absolutely demands it.

For example, let’s say someone is murdered and the police identify the person and release the name to the media. A journalist, writing a news story about the person’s death, is going to want to say: “Police identified the victim as so and so of Albuquerque.”

Attribution Provides Cover and Credibility

Attributing the statement to the police establishes credibility and, at the same time, gives the newspaper some cover if the identity they subsequently publish is, God forbid, incorrect.

That same journalist, writing about a police investigation into the murder, might later find him or herself writing something like: “Police believe the man was killed with a knife during a fight over a drug deal gone bad.”

Again, that protects the newspaper and shows they aren’t making up those details – they come from official sources who have evidence of this privileged information and the authority to release it.

But Sometimes You Don’t Need It

But there are times when attribution is unnecessary – for example, when someone is writing about a fact that everyone knows or that a reporter could reasonably verify. For example, you would never see:

“Police said the sun was shining today.”

Or:

“Police said President Obama visited Albuquerque today.”

Why? Because there is no need to cast doubt on such declarations. Adding attribution to them puts an unnecessary distance between the paper and the statements and raises questions in the reader’s mind about their veracity.

Newspaper readers who see something like this might think: “Why is the paper not just saying this – why do they need someone else to back this up? Does the paper not stand behind these statements?”

This Is One Of Those Times

That’s the feeling I got when I read the Journal’s Sept. 24 correction of a Sept. 23 “Politics Notebook” item about former Center for Civic Policy executive director Eli Il Yong Lee. (And yes, the Center for Civic Policy is the organization behind this media criticism site.)

The Sept. 23 story identified Lee as “a former campaign manager who coordinates a coalition of progressive Democratic nonprofit advocacy groups.”

It’s not clear, but apparently the story was attempting to refer to Lee’s former job as the director of the nonpartisan Center for Civic Policy.

But Lee left the Center six months ago, and was immediately succeeded by Matt Brix, who has been quoted many times in various media as CCP’s director ever since.

Lee has now moved on to other ventures – including forming the political action committee that was the subject of the “Notebook” item.

When Brix informed the newspaper that he, not Lee, is the Center’s director and asked the Journal to run a correction, the paper printed this:

A Journal “Politics Notebook” published Thursday incorrectly stated that Eli Il Yong Lee works for a nonprofit in Albuquerque. Lee formerly worked for a nonprofit but said Thursday that he left several months ago. He said he now works as a consultant (emphasis mine).

So Is It A Correction, Or Not?

I find the attribution in this correction confusing and offensive. Does the Journal not believe that Lee left the Center for Civic Policy? Do they doubt that he is now doing something completely different?

If I were an average reader, I would certainly think so. I would think, “Who is this Lee guy, and why doesn’t the paper believe what he says? Why can’t the paper verify this information? Is this a real correction or not?”

If I learned one thing in 20 years as a newspaper journalist, it’s that it is never good enough to just take a quick pass over some information and publish it. Anyone can do that. If you’re going to put something in the paper, it needs to be right and it needs to actually inform people in some way.

For the Journal, getting Lee’s job title wrong in the first place was an embarrassing error. But printing an insulting “correction” that casts doubt on the correct information is far worse.

Stay tuned for a another post tomorrow on what else the Journal got wrong in that Sept. 23 story.

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