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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To err is human, to correct is only right and proper



In the eye of the Storm.....David Harley. Photo: Andrew Meares
 On Friday, smh.com.au posted ''Australian sailor dies in Cambodia'', a story about a woman who had been found dead in a hotel room in Sihanoukville while on shore leave from HMAS Warramunga. It had a time stamp of 12.35pm. The story said her family had been informed.

But the sailor was not a woman - he was later identified as Leading Seaman Boatswain's Mate Bradley William Livingstone - and on Friday evening I got a call from an irate chief petty officer, who said parents of every woman sailor on the Warramunga would be ''out of their minds with worry''. He was explicit in his opinion of journalists, including - when I said reporters would not have made it up - ''They do make it up! They do!''

They don't, of course, and the error was tracked back to an AAP report, picked up by news organisations which take copy from it.

The Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, was quoted as telling Macquarie Radio: ''She was doing port visits after the exercise. We don't know any more …'' Someone who was unaware ships are referred to as ''she'' by the navy presumed the sailor was the ''she''. AAP sent a correction at 1.27pm, but by then the story had been posted on websites around the country. Yesterday they were still up on many, including smh.com.au and theage.com.au. (The Herald's national security correspondent, Dylan Welch, filed at 12.31pm on Friday a story with the line ''who was originally incorrectly reported as a woman''.)

It was an easy mistake for an inexperienced journalist to make but, as the chief petty officer said, heart-chilling for parents.

The Heralds make mistakes - as do all newspapers, news agencies and news organisations. It would be impossible to get it right every time. A weekday Herald is the equivalent of an average-size book, which can take a year to write, publish and distribute.

Journalists are only human - but I have not met one whose goal was anything other than perfection. They often do not meet that goal, and that can be put down to inexperience, a looming deadline, crossed wires or plain old sloppiness - and sometimes a combination.

Recently the Herald published errors of historical fact - Governor Phillip was alive and well more than 50 years after his death and Kaiser Bill was ahead of his time in being married to his mother. These are easily checked but were not. Embarrassing, very, but I am glad the Herald's editors believe what is wrong must be corrected.

Over the years editors have worried corrections would lead readers to the conclusion the paper is always making mistakes. I hold the opposite view. As the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, said in a recent speech: ''The truth, as all honest journalists know, is that newspapers are full of errors. Not just errors, but crude over-simplifications, mistakes of emphasis, contestable interpretations and things which should simply have been phrased differently. It seems silly to pretend otherwise. Journalism is an imperfect art … And yet many newspapers do persist in pretending they are largely infallible.''

Corrections should be in a prominent and regular position so readers know where to find them. (There are Herald readers who turn to page two even before they start on page one.) And when published online they should be attached conspicuously to the story. That does not always happen, but I have been assured steps are being taken to fix that. Soon, I hope.

Many believe an error should be attributed to the journalist who made it. I do not. A mistake made in a newspaper's name should be corrected in its name. Journalists work for the newspapers; they represent them. Although reporters' names are on the story, those stories appear under a masthead which we hope will be around a lot longer than the reporters.

Who made the mistake is of no consequence to the reader; what is of consequence is that it is corrected as quickly as possible. The pain caused by the story about the dead sailor is a perfect example of why.

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