Corrections and apologies are hard, but as writers there is a simple fact that at some point in our careers we will get something wrong. Being able to acknowledge and take ownership of a mistake is a fairly important aspect of this art and profession.
I learned this in a rather difficult way when I was a reporter about 14 years ago. I was new to journalism and professional writing and my biggest fear at the time was getting something wrong, and doing so in a way that caused someone harm. One day, I was asked to cover a trial for another reporter of a man in his 20s who had thrown semen on a woman in a Walmart (yet another reason to avoid Walmart).
The woman was in the store with her son and during the trial this was mentioned and done so in a way that made me think the son had also been targeted. I watched the trial for the day--it was a one day trial--and then reported on the verdict, which was delivered the same day (if I am remembering correctly).
With this story and probably three or four others due by the end of the day I rushed back to the office and wrote the story without really checking the facts of the case and reported that the woman's son was also a target of the semen thrower. As it turns out, it was just the woman.
Seems like an inconsequential detail, but the defendant did not see it that way and his lawyer called me about a week later to say the story was incorrect and they wanted a correction. At the time I had an editor with a fairly hot head (I think all newspaper editors are like that) and feeling severely embarrassed and somewhat humiliated as well as concerned about being yelled at or punished I hung up the phone and said nothing thinking this would just go away.
Two weeks later I heard the phone ring in my editor's office and from the conversation I knew what the subject was. The lawyer was calling back to threaten legal action if we didn't print a correction. To say the least I felt like shit.
My editor came out of his office and pretty much tore me down in front of the entire newsroom and said if I ever made a mistake like that again I was done. To say the least I never did and the only corrections I remember asking for were mistakes by editors. I certainly wasn't perfect, but I was definitely much more careful with everything I wrote.
Yesterday I received an email from The Sun Magazine, which to me is one of the best and most consistently well written and edited literary journals ever published. This email only solidified that belief.
They wrote to notify subscribers of a mistake in a story where the addition of one word, a seemingly innocuous word to an interview piece had dramatically altered the meaning of what the person was saying. The mistake had been picked up during editing of the galleys and fact checking, but due to an oversight was never fixed and went to print. The email offered an apology and correction to the story as well as the interviewees explanation of what he meant and why the additional word dramatically altered the meaning of what he was saying.
In other words, The Sun, a magazine I have so much respect for already, took the time and made the effort to take ownership of their mistake and fix it. I now have even more respect for them. By contrast, in my instance I lost respect for myself and from my editor.
Pasted below is the text of The Sun's email:
The Sun owes an apology to David Krieger, Leslee Goodman, and our readers.
In our January 2013 issue we published an interview by Goodman titled “Indefensible: David Krieger on the Continuing Threat of Nuclear Weapons.” In it, Krieger is quoted as saying that the path to global security “can only be through unilateral nuclear disarmament.” He never said that. One of our editors made the error of inserting the word unilateral into Krieger’s statement. In foreign-policy circles, suggesting that one country abolish its nuclear arsenal while others maintain theirs is widely considered unrealistic and counterproductive. We thus misrepresented a central aspect of Krieger’s views.
The mistake didn’t get past Krieger, however. When we sent him the interview for a final review, he asked that we replace the word unilateral, which he’d never used, with total. We assured Krieger we would make that change. Then, regrettably, we neglected to do so.
I couldn’t be more chagrined at the careless way this was handled. In an effort to make amends, we’ve posted the full text of the corrected interview on our website. We are sending a reprinted version of the interview to hundreds of nuclear-disarmament activists, national-security experts, and others with whom Krieger has worked over the years. We’ll also provide copies for Krieger to distribute at upcoming conferences and for any Sun reader who requests one. (Please write to Molly Herboth at The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516 or e-mail email@example.com with your mailing address.)
Accuracy matters to us. This is why each issue of the magazine is copy-edited, proofread, and fact-checked by multiple editors and proofreaders, and then scrutinized a final time before it goes to print. In this instance, the error got past all of us. (For the record, our veteran proofreader wasn’t available to work on this issue.) As The Sun’s editor and publisher, I bear ultimate responsibility for every word that appears in the magazine. I know what “unilateral nuclear disarmament” means but read right past it. I deeply regret my mistake.
Krieger was gracious and forgiving with us. I invited him to clarify his position for our readers, and he sent us the statement that appears below.
Editor and publisher
As one last word, if you are considering subscribing to The Sun, you should do it. A wonderful literary journal that is worth every penny.
Causes James Buchanan Supports
Expanding health care in the US, ending war as a viable tool of foreign policy, and issues related to social justice in general.