Three tips for avoiding errors when dealing with archival content

January 3, 2012
Category: Uncategorized

Archives can be dangerous territory for journalists. Searching in databases or a newspaper’s morgue can provide essential background and perspective for current coverage. But it can also lead to errors and other offenses.

This December correction from the Kalgoorlie Miner of Western Australia highlights some of the many challenges journalists and others face when relying on archival content:

IN TUESDAY’S Goldfields History page, we wrote about a shooting incident 50 years ago in which two men died in Hoover Street, Leonora.

The original news article published the names of the two men, one 16 years old and the other 22, which at the time was the style of the newspaper.

The article also mentioned the name of a 14-year-old girl who was shot in the incident.

We acknowledge it is culturally inappropriate to mention in full the names of deceased indigenous people and the name of any juvenile under the age of 16.

Laverton Senior Aboriginal police liaison officer Rex Weldon contacted the Kalgoorlie Miner and we thank him for bringing it to our attention.

We apologise to the woman mentioned in the article, as well as relatives and friends of the deceased.

In this case, the paper wrongly repeating the names of juveniles, and failed to account for a specific cultural sensitivity with Australia’s Aboriginal community. It was tripped up by older practices that no longer work for today’s reporting.

In another example, New York Times reporter David W. Dunlap recently dug into the paper’s archives and located his first story, published 30 years before. After quoting from the piece in a recent blog post, he received an email from the source he interviewed three decades before.

“I had no idea that I was a part of your first article and that James Gleick was your editor!,” the man wrote. “It was fun to know this after so many years. Michael Silberstein. P.S. It’s Silberstein, not Silverstein.”

Well, better late than never, as they say. So Dunlap wrote a follow up post to confess his error and offer a correction:

An article on July 20, 1981, about the failure of the transmitter serving the Columbia University radio station, WKCR-FM, misspelled the name of the station’s general manager. He was Michael Silberstein, not Silverstein. This correction was delayed because we heard from Mr. Silberstein only last week.

These two examples highlight the perils of relying on archival content — even if it’s under your byline. So how can you guard against repeating old mistakes, or mishandling older information? I have three accuracy tips for working with archival content, and would love to hear more from you in the comments.

  1. Don’t assume old facts are correct. Recheck names, dates, figures. Just because it made it into your publication, or another reputable outlet, doesn’t mean it’s a flawless report. If you intend to reuse information, you must verify it. If you plan to quote it as an artifact of that moment in time, be sure to make that clear to the audience, and to flag any inaccuracies.
  2. Check if laws/practices/standards have changed. The Kalgoorlie Miner correction illustrates how publishing and identification practices can change over time. That’s also true for laws. Make sure to handle archival information according to today’s standards. Or, if it makes sense to comply with the old standards, note the exception and explain why. This may turn out to be an interesting part of your new story.
  3. Try to track down the players. This is often necessary when updating a story. But in many cases, journalists don’t take the time to see if the principal players are still around and available. A bit of time spent searching and making phone calls or sending emails can help you check for errors in the original report, and gather new facts. As shown in the example from the Times, these original sources may come and find you anyway. So it’s best to reach out to them before publishing to check the original and see if they have anything new and interesting to add.

Update Jan. 5: — Donald W. Meyers posed two good questions in the comments of this post:

Would you mind explaining why it was culturally insensitive to give the full names of dead people? As an American, I don’t understand the problem, and you didn’t set up the correction well enough to show why it was such a faux pas. Plus, if the names were public record before, why expunge a historical record?

He’s right that my post didn’t provide background about the specific cultural sensitivity mentioned in the correction. I followed up with Lawrie Zion, an associate professor of journalism at La Trobe University in Australia, to ask if he could provide some information.

“There is no blanket convention, but many media organisations have acknowledged the importance of recognising the sensitivities of the issue of how coverage of deceased persons should be dealt with,” he told me by email.

Zion pointed me to an Australian Broadcasting Corporation protocol document [PDF] that deals with the coverage of aboriginal communities. The document has a section dedicated to the reporting of deaths. It includes this warning message that ABC Television, Radio and Online use as an introduction to relevant programming:

WARNING: The ABC seeks to treat Indigenous cultures and beliefs with respect. To many communities it is distressful and offensive to depict persons who have died. Indigenous communities which may be offended are warned that the following program may contain such scenes.

This passage also seems particularly relevant:

Many communities have a mourning period where that person’s name and image cannot be used. The time of mourning is different between communities. It can be for a week, year or for an indefinite period of time that you will not be able to use the deceased’s name, image, voice or video. Some communities offer a mourning name e.g. Kumantjayi in parts of the Northern Territory as in the case of Dr Charles Perkins was called Kumantjayi Perkins.

I think those two excerpts help explain the sensitivity.

As for Donald’s second question about “expunging the record,” I replied to that in the comment thread, saying, “To your last point, I don’t see the paper omitting the names as akin to expunging the record. The archives remain intact, as the correction is for a recent story, not the original. I do however agree it would be wrong to go back in and change the original piece.”

Thanks to Donald for two good questions.

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