One of the worst things journalists can do to a local company is to wrongly declare it’s out of business or that it’s gone bankrupt.
Whenever I see one of these mistakes, I cringe for the store owners and managers. For a small business owner in particular, it must be incredibly frustrating to open a local paper and learn the community is being told you’re no longer in operation.
One of the worst examples of this is a 2010 correction from The Cairns Post in Australia:
In yesterday’s edition of The Cairns Post, it was wrongly reported that Mr Bob Harris was flying with another man in a four-seat Cessna 172 when it crashed about 20kms southwest of Mt Coleridge, near Innisfail. Mr Harris was not flying in the plane which crashed. Mr Harris’ flight school business and Hinchinbrook Air Services charters continues to operate. The Cairns Post accepts that our article has caused considerable embarrassment to Mr Harris. The Cairns Post apologises for the error.
What happened next is predictable: the restaurant was flooded with calls from confused and disappointed customers. Owner Penny Lyons contacted the paper for a correction.
From there, things went from bad to worse, as detailed by Star public editor Kathy English. (Disclosure, English and I serve together on the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics advisory committee.)
English was on vacation when the mistake occurred. That soon combined with a few newsroom mishaps to delay the print correction, and then to eventually run without the prominence she’d intended.
“Sadly, this error is a prime example of the Murphy’s Law of Mistakes,” English writes. “In correcting this error, just about anything that could go wrong did.”
After the print correction was delayed due to a miscommunication at the paper, English returned from vacation and worked to prepare it to run the next day. She also decided to give it a more prominent headline to help draw readers to the correction:
To draw attention to it and assure that readers would know the restaurant is still open, rather than the “Correction” label that usually tops the Star’s corrections, I added a larger headline stating “House of Chan open for steak lovers.”
To my dismay, yet another error occurred in the newsroom production process. The editor who put the correction on the page did not thoroughly read the email explaining that it was to run with a headline. The correction was placed beneath another, without the strong headline focus I had intended.
One positive thing to note about this is English was able to draw additional attention to the error and related mistakes in her column. A paper without a public editor would certainly have regretted a similar series of events, but would there have been such a public follow-up?
English’s handling demonstrates the value of having a newsroom person dedicated to delivering accountability to the public, to speaking up about these issues, and, of course, to overseeing corrections.
“I could have done a better job of communicating directly with the newsroom to assure the correction was published properly,” English says near the end of her column.
It’s good of her to accept responsibility. Even better that someone is there to do so.