The Consequences of Overreacharound

The following question and answer followed the previous question and answer about the Newsweek fiasco (see below).

Q: What would typically happen in a smaller-scale case like the Newsweek one, say, one that didn't involve death, rioting and a major publication? I know those are important considerations, but what would happen at your paper if there was a similar error (choose your scenario)?

A: You asked about what we would do if something like the Newsweek error happened to us. As soon as we sussed out what actually happened and how it happened, we'd probably run a story on it, just like Newsweek did. Almost certainly, it'd be by a different reporter than the one or ones who wrote the original story, with the idea being that reporting honestly on the publication's mistake and carrying the byline of someone not involved from the get-go would make the story more credible and help salvage the publication's credibility.

If the screwup was bad enough -- if it involved an intentional act of deceit on the part of a reporter or editor or both -- you'd be looking at firings and/or resignations. If it was a mistake in good faith, like this appears to be, reporters and editors might be suspended or disciplined in some way, but they probably wouldn't be fired. But intentional deception by a reporter or editor is something that, I can tell you, guarantees an automatic dismissal. See Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, or going way back, Janet Cooke.

Keep in mind, though, that those rules work in most situations but not necessarily in Washington. Doing national reporting on the federal government is almost a completely different game that carries a different set of standards than most journalism; not officially, of course, but in reality, from what I understand, if you're going to get to the bottom of things, especially if it reflects badly on the administration in power, you're going to have to rely largely on confidential sources, for obvious reasons. I can't speak intelligently on the details because I've never done that kind of reporting, and I have no interest in it, either.

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