ethics / industry news

How to do a retraction

One of my favorite radio programs is This American Life. Host Ira Glass is a practiced audio storyteller, and the program conveys a rich cross-section of emotional and thoughtful extended storytelling each week. Some would say that what TAL does isn’t journalism, but that’s a debate for another day.

Last week, TAL had to retract one of their most popular episodes because some of the information in the episode was not accurate.

Here’s the retraction episode:

And here’s a PDF transcript of the episode.

Here’s what Glass said to introduce the program:

I should say, I am not happy to have to come to you and tell you that something that we presented on the radio as factual is not factual. All of us in public radio stand together and I have friends and colleagues on lots of other shows who – like us here at This American Life – work hard to do accurate, independent reporting week in, week out. I and my coworkers on This American Life are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day. So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong, and what we now believe is the truth.

This is a good example of an organization owning up to a story that went wrong, and spending the time to make sure the process is explained properly and, more importantly, prominently. It’s easy for a retraction or major correction to end up buried at the bottom of page 2 in the newspaper business. Or as a last minute statement at the end of the evening newscast.

The episode has generated plenty of discussion in the journalistic community, and serves as another example of the need to verify everything that appears in your publication/broadcast. The sad thing is, some in the news industry are gutting the copy desk in the name of “efficiency,” while sacrificing the very real need for fact-checking, even at the newspaper level.

I’m curious what standards others in the college media industry have for making sure the information presented, especially in long-form or investigative pieces, is accurate? Is there a fact-checking process?

I would note that there is absolutely no excuse for a reporter not to have an audio recorder along for every interview in this day and age. I’m not saying it’s a panacea, but I believe it’s crucial for verification purposes.

Here’s a great accuracy checklist (Scribd link) from Craig Silverman, the error guru.

Silverman has some more probing thoughts at Regret the Error.