Sunday, August 07, 2005

Making a Correction

Last week, I noted that county commissioner Nelson Peters was upset about a story in the Journal Gazette that he claimed quoted him out of context. He also was less than pleased at the resulting jeer in the paper's CHEERS and JEERS sections criticizing him for the comment in question. He wrote about his displeasure in a letter to the editor, which the paper printed.

But it got me thinking -- what's the JG's obligation when someone like Peters (or anyone, really) claims that they've been quoted out of context? In most instances, I'd say that printing that person's letter to the editor would qualify as fair and sufficient. After all, the reporter isn't likely to backtrack from what was written, and because of the nature of most interviews, the readers won't ever have a chance to judge for themselves if someone's been wronged.

But not in this case. I'm not an expert on how things are run in county government, but I would imagine that there is a record of what was said at the commissioners' meeting where Peters made the statement that he believes was taken out of context by reporter Benjamin Lanka. If that's true, then it shouldn't be too hard for the JG to provide the context for the statement in question, letting their readers decide for themselves whether or not Peters was really wronged.

Printing the context of the statement is beneficial for the paper either way. If Peters wasn't really quoted out of context, by clearly illustrating that to its readers, the JG would make Peters think twice before alleging such a thing in the future when he's quoted saying something less than flattering. But if it turns out Peters' comments were taken out of context, by printing that the JG shows it's committed to fair, accurate reporting and maintaining its journalistic credibility -- regardless of whether it makes the paper itself look bad.

If Lanka did indeed quote Peters out of context, falsely portraying him as someone unconcerned about people with disabilities, that's at least as serious as Todd D. Burlage writing a story about the Alcohol Abuse Deterrent Program without disclosing that his sister was a participant. When Burlage resigned in May, here's what the JG wrote:
We take seriously any threats to our credibility with readers and apologize that this violation of our policy made it into print.
If they're serious about that, it seems to me they would want to print the context of Nelson Peters' quote, and let their readers decide. After all, if they've got reporters misconstruing the remarks of elected officials, that's not exactly helping their credibility.

In most cases, the paper printing Peters' letter to the editor would have been enough. But here, when it can resolve this dispute by going one step further, I think they have an obligation to do so.

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