By paulgillin | February 11, 2012 - 10:38 am - Posted in Journalism, Newspapers

We would have thought that the devastation of mainstream media in general – and the newspaper industry in particular – would confer some humility on daily newspaper editors. Then we read a story like this one.

To summarize: A man in his 40s who has lived a mostly trouble-free life with his wife and children picks up the newspaper one day to find his photo on the front page next to a story about a child rapist who happens to have the same name. It appears the newspaper had used a file photo taken 11 months earlier without making much effort to check that the person in the photo was the same as the person who had been indicted. Both men are named Angel Ortiz, a Spanish name that’s about as common as Nick Jones in the English-speaking world. Furthermore, no one at the newspaper appeared to notice that the Ortiz who had been charged with rape is in his 20s while the Ortiz in the photo is in his 40s.

That’s bad enough, but what really angered us was this passage:

[Ortiz lawyer David] Rich said he wrote a letter to The MetroWest Daily News Editor Richard Lodge on Dec. 16, demanding a front page retraction. Lodge responded the paper would run something the next day, Saturday, Dec. 17, according to Rich, and he told Rich the photo was  “immediately removed the photo from the website,” upon receipt of the letter.

“The retraction ran on the bottom of page 2, with no photo,” said Rich…Ortiz never received a personal letter of apology from anyone at the daily newspaper, added Rich.

According to Rich, Ortiz lost his job after the story appeared and has been unable to find employment. He hides in his house for fear that he will be assaulted if recognized in public. He’s living in hell thanks to a mistake that could have been easily avoided with a look into the archives or an address check.

In our view, a front-page retraction and apology would be the least the paper could do to help put this guy’s life back in order. But they didn’t even send a letter.

What do you think the editors should have done?

 

 

Comments

comments

This entry was posted on Saturday, February 11th, 2012 at 10:38 am and is filed under Journalism, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Comments

  1. February 11, 2012 @ 11:32 am



    Front page retraction with an explanatory infoblurb embedded in each and every future online and hard copy story about the alleged rapist making it clear that they mistakenly identified the wrong man in earlier stories.

    My question is, why the hell didn’t they just grab the mug shot?

    Posted by Curtis Bloes
  2. February 11, 2012 @ 11:33 am



    Good question.

    Posted by paulgillin
  3. February 14, 2012 @ 5:20 pm



    Disclosure first: I worked at the newspaper in question for almost 20 years, having left about 15 years ago.

    My guess would be that the paper’s response to the request for a front-page correction was fashioned by a lawyer, because the request *came* from a lawyer. And while the response seems appallingly inadequate, both from the standpoint of a reader and my own as a journalist for 35 years, I cannot speak to its quality from a legal standpoint. In other words, it may be that a front-page correction and apology — as opposed to the routine page 2 correction — was judged to be unwise in terms of the paper defending itself against the inevitable lawsuit. I’m not defending that decision, merely saying that in my experience the lawyers always win when there are internal debates about what to do after a screw-up of this magnitude.

    Posted by Paul McNamara
  4. February 14, 2012 @ 5:38 pm



    That’s certainly a plausible theory, but if the newspaper was worried about a lawsuit it seems that a prominent correction would work in their favor, wouldn’t it? Aren’t the courts inclined to look favorably upon media organizations that move quickly to correct errors?

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  5. February 15, 2012 @ 7:02 am



    Even my guess-work here is based on long-ago experience, but I believe the thinking would go something like this:

    Plaintiff: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the injury done to my client was so egregious here — so above and beyond the scale of an everyday “mistake” — that the newspaper acknowledged it with a virtually unprecedented front-page correction and an apology that was as clear of an admission of guilt as you will ever see.”

    Defendant: “Newspapers are put together by human beings who, as we all know, are prone to make mistakes. When this mistake was made, the newspaper’s editors followed exactly their well-established procedures for handling such matters. Readers know to look for corrections on page 2; to have put it elsewhere would have have risked it not being seen by regular readers.”

    What you would hope for here is that the newspaper publisher and/or its ownership would tell its lawyer, “Screw that tap dance; we need to help repair this man’s life. Put the correction and apology on Page 1 and we’ll deal with whatever consequences arise from doing that.”

    The bottom line is that I would be shocked if the decision was made by the paper’s editor. The only way I could see that happening is if he for whatever reason failed to kick it up the chain of command.

    Posted by Paul McNamara
  6. February 15, 2012 @ 8:47 am



    If the thinking at the MWDN really is that a correction on page 2 is more likely to be seen than a correction on page 1, then you can title this post “Media Arrogance & Stupidity At Its Worst”.

    Posted by paulgillin
  7. February 15, 2012 @ 12:49 pm



    No, I would assume that that no one would make that claim seriously. The lawyer would be saying, “The paper did what it always does in such cases (page 2), which makes the response in this case a reasonable one.” Putting it on Page 1 would be a tacit admission of guilt; not only “we made a mistake,” but “Oh, my god I hope we don’t get sued kind of mistake.” (Again, that’s BS, but it’s what you’re left with when you’re wrong.)

    It reminds me of the advice we got regarding whether or not to retain notes, namely: It doesn’t *matter* whether you keep them or not, or for how long you keep them, but whatever is your custom had better be what you did after the you-know-what hit the fan.

    Posted by Paul McNamara
  8. February 17, 2012 @ 12:54 pm



    Dekoreji…

    […]Media Arrogance at its Worst | Newspaper Death Watch[…]…

    Posted by Dekoreji
  9. June 18, 2012 @ 2:29 pm



    I think part of the court settlement should be that the reporter of that piece, the editor, and publisher should have their photographs put on the above-the-fold front page with “Be on the lookout for these three child rapists. The courts cannot touch them. Here are their home addresses.” And then run a retraction on Page 2 the following week. I’m sure the retraction will repair all damage to their reputations and lives. I cannot see how any of them could complain if this was done to them since it is just like the “fair” treatment they gave this guy.

    On the bright side, the lawsuit will help kill off another newspaper and give this guy an early retirement somewhere in the Caribbean.

    Posted by Scott Jensen
  10. June 18, 2012 @ 2:36 pm



    Love the idea, Scott!

    Posted by Paul Gillin