How to apologize for an epic newspaper blunder

There may just be hope for the dead tree press after all. Even if you’ve given up entirely on the mainstream media, perhaps we could point the New York Times, the Washington Post and others to this story which I first saw at The Daily Caller. In Hardin County, Kentucky, the daily fish wrap is the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise. Last week, this small paper that most of you have never heard of ran a story which none of you would likely ever care about. It was an interview piece with the local sheriff, John Ward. In the course of offering remarks to the local reporter, Ward coughed up the true but generally forgettable line that “police officers go into that line of work because they have a desire to serve the community.”

That’s about as interesting as watching paint dry, right? But when the paper landed on the subscribers’ porches the next morning, the quote somehow came out like this.

“Those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities,” the Elizabethtown News-Enterprise quoted John Ward as saying.

So there was clearly an, er… error in the published text. Oh boy was there an error. As soon as it was discovered, the newspaper corrected their online edition, issued an apology and printed one on the front page the following day. But some of their readers were not satisfied with the explanation offered.

Despite the clarification, News-Enterprise commenters were left unsatisfied.

“A ‘major error’ is what you call it?” wrote Kim Lewis. “What a pathetic apology. Whomever caused this ‘major error’ has no business in the NEWS business and not only needs to personally apologize to John Ward but their a$$ [sic] needs canned.”

Sorry but your retraction should have said exactly what you misquoted and offered some insight into how you plan to deal with it,” commented Tracie Carney Dupin. “This wasn’t some minor misquote. This attacked a man’s credibility and reputation as well as put in jeopardy officer’s lives should some moron believe your statement.”

In an almost stunning display of responsibility by a newspaper, the editor took to the front page a second time for a full blown, large font, above the fold mea culpa which you (and the editors of all the big papers) should read in full.

No reasonable excuse exists for the horrible mistake that occurred Thursday in The News-Enterprise. By now, many of you have heard about it…

Sheriff Ward is not responsible for the statement. He said nothing of the sort.

A retraction and apology has been printed Friday on Page A1. As community members and neighbors, we feel it is important to repeat this apology again publicly to Sheriff John Ward, the entire law enforcement community and to you, our readers. We share the outrage and disgust expressed by many of you. Internally, the newspaper leadership spent yesterday researching this error, discovering the form it took and taking corrective action. As a result, the two people involved were fired.

Reporter Anna Taylor, whose name was on the story, is not responsible for this error…

It takes years to develop trust. It takes only seconds to destroy it.

We understand our credibility may be called into question but the sheriff should not be subjected to the same scrutiny.

That is incredibly impressive. No excuses. No shifting the blame. The editor of the paper took to the front page to declare that his credibility was essentially trashed in a single moment. He asked for nothing other than the chance to begin a fresh track record of not making mistakes in the hopes that people would some day place their trust in him again. It speaks volumes about the paper.

How did that happen in the first place? In the full article the problem is described as a situation where “a function and process designed to rid the news pages of error instead added a terrible one.” Some of the details released by the paper might lead people to believe that it was some software error or something, but that’s essentially impossible. I’ve spent enough time with the folks on the front line, particularly at a couple of Gannett outlets, to know how it works, and there is no artificial intelligence running in the background capable of inserting that sort of humdinger. First, it’s totally believable that the reporter was not to blame and it’s fine that she was not fired. The words that the reporter submits never make it to the pages of the paper without passing through multiple sets of eyes and hands. Copy editors get hold of them, edit them for length, find and correct any typos and call into question research material if it looks dubious. Writers rarely get to write their own headlines, either.

Odds are that a thin staff over the holiday season got a little too happy and began messing around with the copy. Through some horrible series of failures the “joke” they inserted made it to the front page. So of course they were fired. I saw one copy editor in Utica, NY get fired back in the nineties after two errors in three months, one of which was simply the wrong size font for an article title below the fold. It’s an unforgiving business when run properly. But this specific failure in Kentucky also speaks to the underlying attitudes and possible bias of their copy editing staff if that’s the sort of jokes that were running around behind the curtains. All the more reason to give them their walking papers.

This apology letter should be sent to every newspaper in the country with a simple heading: This is how it’s done.