Funny how news organizations expect, dare I say demand, transparency when seeking specifics about disciplinary action against public and private employees when covering a story.
However, rarely do we provide the same level of transparency when it comes to dealing with our own mistakes. Credit to the Times for a solid editor’s note about claims one of its reporters used a passage from a Wikipedia page without proper attribution.
But the Times declined to elaborate on how it dealt with the offending reporter. News organizations should set the standard for transparency when these kinds of issues arise. We can’t be the institutions that hold power accountable if we don’t set an even higher bar for transparency when these unfortunate issues do occur.
These mistakes also offer an opportunity for engagement with our readership. It provides a chance to explain and elaborate on what went wrong and go deeper into what is going to be put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
This interaction helps heal the wound and reinforces our position as credible sources of news and information. The New York Times is an incredible news organization. But even a publication with its storied history could do much more to engage its audience and provide better transparency.
There have been other mistakes by news organizations that could have been opportunities for community dialogue.
Following the Asiana Airlines crash at SFO International airport in 2013, KTVU-Channel 2 made the mistake of reporting fake and racially insensitive names of the pilots of the fated flight. The station fired three producers, one of whom was my former journalism professor.
The NTSB apparently confirmed the incorrect names to the station and later fired its own intern. Interns can’t really be fired, can they? C’mon now, you can’t put it on the intern!
Now, I don’t know enough about the track record of the KTVU producers to say whether or not they deserved to be fired. That isn’t my point.
The point is, although the station apologized on air and fired people, appearing to take a tough stance on accuracy and accountability, it was a smokescreen. They didn’t really take a stand because they didn’t explain what happened.
They declined to take the opportunity the mistake had given to have meetings with the community and discuss why this egregious error occurred. Mistakes are terrible. They’re embarrassing and unfortunately, we’re all bound eventually to make some.
Mistakes burn like five-alarm hot sauce in the guts of all self-respecting journalists.
KTVU could and should have welcomed the chance to connect with the Asian community in Oakland and have a forum about the lack of diversity on its staff, have the news director talk about the structure of the organization, even talk about its failings and what it plans to put in place to minimize mistakes in the future.
This likely would have required a deeper exploration of the issue internally, because you can’t very well have a conversation with the community without really understanding what went wrong and how you’re going to fix it.
Perhaps such a discussion could have averted the firing of the offending producers. After all, given staffing levels at stations, I can’t imagine it made the organization stronger to have three fewer veteran journalists on staff. I don’t recall a report that new producers had been hired or promoted to take over for those who were let go.
Given the role of a news organization in a community, we have a responsibility to convey these details to the public. They are entrusting us to be news and information providers. Shouldn’t we tell them how we plan to fulfill this mission and who is doing it?
KTVU and its news division generally does a solid job. There are hardworking, committed journalists who work at that station and for my money, their broadcast is tops for TV viewing in the Bay Area. But the station showed a woeful lack of transparency in that it didn’t explain the internal processes that led to the mistake. It just fired the people responsible. Perhaps the structure or workflows of the organization were at least partially to blame.
The point is, we don’t know and we won’t know. Once again a news organization denies the community a level of transparency it would certainly demand from a public agency it covers.
Such errors are painful, for the reporter, the broadcaster, the editors, the whole staff. But just like anything, when you get over the initial embarrassment and deal with the issue and engage with the community about what happened, it’s a real opportunity to build an even deeper connection and understanding.
We owe that to the people we cover if we expect to be relevant and credible. Otherwise, we’re merely pushers of content and visitors in their lives. We need to be more than that.