“The correction discloses outrageous carelessness,” wrote James Backstrom of Philadelphia. “Not only is the lengthy quotation not part of the famous majority opinion, it is from a dissent of another Justice in another case entirely. A mistake of this kind in an article of this kind only in The Times is alarming.”
Bill McDonald, editor of the obituaries desk, said the error had occurred after the author of the piece, Robert McFadden, mistook one opinion for the other when referring to printouts he had made of the two justices’ writings. “It was an honest human error,” McDonald said. “The reporter was extremely distressed by it.”
Shortly after midnight on Saturday, Walter Dellinger, former solicitor general of the United States, emailed The Times high court reporter, Adam Liptak, who reached McDonald to let him know of the error. The incorrect quotations were removed by 3 a.m., although the actual note explaining that the story had been corrected didn’t appear till close to an hour later. The obituary began on the front page of most print editions Sunday, but the error was noticed too late for the Sunday newspaper, so the corrected obit ran in Monday’s paper, but with no correction. The actual print correction ran Tuesday.
As embarrassing as this blunder was, there is almost no hope of eliminating its cause: basic human error. A reporter on deadline mixed up documents that, in a rush, looked similar. Unquestionably, it would be better had that error been caught, but it’s understandable that it wasn’t. There was no reckless intention.
So that’s not my concern. I question why readers, in this case and others, are not told that a substantial correction has been made to an article until they read all the way to the bottom. We’re not talking about a story that misspelled a name or cited a wrong date. We’re talking about an otherwise solid piece that nonetheless substantially misquoted the majority opinion in a court case whose impact on American culture and politics still reverberates.
Shouldn’t there be a way to flag readers when the error that was made rises above the routine? Right now, there are limited categories for signaling that things didn’t go as planned.
If a factual error is made, Times policy is to correct the error in the text of the piece and append a note to the bottom explaining what was changed from the original and why.
The second, usually more serious, category is the more rarely used “Editors’ note,” which is meant to acknowledge lapses of fairness, balance or other types of judgments that could produce significant faults in the piece — though not necessarily technical errors.
“There is a high bar for what we consider an editors’ note,” said Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards. He agrees that the Blackmun quotation was more substantial than is typical, but he said there is, right now anyway, no mechanism for distinguishing between major errors and everyday mistakes.
I hope top editors will consider one, which to my mind wouldn’t be difficult. It could mean classifying significant errors under the existing category of editors’ note, thus flagging readers at the top of a piece that a substantial error was made in the original version. Or it could mean using the “correction” label at the top of an article for substantial factual errors (publishing any lengthy details at the end). Either way, readers wouldn’t wait until they get to the bottom of the story (if they do) before discovering that the piece underwent a significant change.
I have advocated in the past for editors to communicate better to readers when they make notable changes to a story, highlighting, for example, that a piece was updated to add important context or that changes were made that altered the tone or thrust.
Flagging more significant corrections falls into the same category. Being upfront about mistakes or regrets would bring more transparency to The Times’s relationship with its readers. It’s rather like the derelictions of youth: If you break the vase, don’t wait for mom to notice and then confess. Best to catch her when she walks in the door.
An earlier version of this column misstated when the correction was appended to the McCorvey obituary. It was close to an hour later, not nine hours later.
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