When you mess up, fess up

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By Jackie Torok, Managing Editor

I wasn’t aware of the Medill F until I read a story this week about the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.
According to news reports, 30 of the 250 or so graduates received diplomas that featured an egregious spelling error. Their degrees were in “media, integrated marketing communications” — except the word “integrated” was spelled “itegrated.”
Spelling errors are embarrassing in any context, but the graduates in question found this mistake particularly ironic because of the so-called Medill F: The school apparently is known for giving failing grades to students whose work contains factual errors, including misspellings.
The policy isn’t unique to Northwestern’s journalism school; the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, employed the same practice. Alas, I know from personal experience.
It happened to me during my copy-editing midterm exam. I got the spelling of a city’s name wrong. The kicker was, I’d looked up the spelling and corrected it on my page, but forgot to save my work before I turned it in to my professor. I’d gotten everything else right, too. That one small mistake not only cost me an A on that exam, but also the chance at making an A for the entire class. Let me tell you, it’s hard to dig yourself out of an F on a midterm.
Now I know no one’s perfect, and typos and mistakes happen — without malice and minus catastrophe — but every time I’ve even seen one in print on my watch, I’ve felt the same frustration and humiliation I did as an undergraduate in Raleigh Mann’s class some 20 years ago.
Through the years, I’ve learned not to dwell on them too much and instead resolve to do better in the next edition.
That next edition, however, had better include a correction.
One of the great things about newspapers is how tangible they are, how you can pick one up at any time and read it at leisure. When they contain a mistake, they seem to linger beyond their usual shelf life; it seems to me the errors sometimes take on lives of their own.
A key step toward restoring credibility is an appropriate correction.
One of my former editors, Steve Fagan, enjoyed a newspaper career almost as colorful as he is. Now retired, he writes a blog called The Ancient Newspaper Editor where he comments on the state of “news media — newspapers in particular — past, present and future.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve gotta say Steve and I didn’t always get along all the time. Countless former coworkers can attest to the shouting matches we’d had back in the (Florence, S.C.) Morning News newsroom. What’s also true is that I wouldn’t have made it this far in the newspaper business without him. When it comes to journalism, my respect for him is absolute. He offers a unique insight tempered by decades of experience and is, as far I’m concerned, one of the best ever in the biz. I still look to him for advice and counsel as a mentor.
In a recent blog post, Steve addressed the important matter of corrections, and I agree with every point he made. He differentiated between honest, relatively minor mistakes and disastrous ones that are the stuff of editors’ nightmares, and the ways of approaching corrections for each.
For the honest, relatively minor mistakes, corrections on page 2 are the standard, Steve noted. That’s how it is here at the Beacon.
As for the disasters?
“If you get it egregiously wrong on Page 1, you need to set it straight on Page 1,” Steve wrote. “To not do so could make it appear to readers and to the news sources used in the gathering of information for the story as though the paper is trying to hide or minimize its bonehead error in a story that was given prominent play.
“It’s as much a matter of transparency as making it clear in the correction where in the process the error crept into the story.”
You can read the entire post at http://nuzedit.blogspot.com/2014/06/placement-of-corrections-is-as.html.
Basically, the rule of thumb in newspapers (as in life) is: When you mess up, fess up.
A proper correction offers an apology and accepts responsibility. Only an A-plus effort to make things right can ease the sting of a Medill F mistake.

Jackie Torok is managing editor of the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or email editor@brunswickbeacon.com.