Anatomy of An Error | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Anatomy of An Error

On Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006, The Clarion-Ledger published an editorial titled "Will DA Accept Another Plea Bargain?" in which the writer made a huge error when he wrote the following:

"After District Attorney Faye Peterson and Attorney General Jim Hood accepted Melton's plea bargain on gun charges this week, can voters expect the same on the charges stemming from the duplex demolition incident?"

This was an error, and an embarrassing one, because the thrust of the editorial was to castigate the DA and the AG for not landing a felony conviction in Mayor Melton's recent gun trials. You can see that plainly in the editorialist's conclusion: "Peterson and Hood have been left with a measure of political and legal egg on their faces—and the taxpayers with a political melodrama that never ends."

The error is simply this—the DA doesn't try the AG's cases. When the Jackson Free Press called the DA that day to find out if she'd helped make the decision to offer a plea deal to Melton in these cases, she said, "No." She told us that she had received a courtesy call from the AG's office when the plea deal was put on the table on Tuesday, Nov. 14, but she didn't hear from the AG's office again, and learned of the final plea when we all did on Wednesday.

If the DA didn't have any decision-making authority in bringing the plea bargain to fruition, then it's difficult to argue that she has "political and legal egg" on her face because of a plea deal she didn't control.

In other words, The C-L's crack editorial team screwed the pooch.

In doing so, I think they showed their hand before the dealing was done. The C-L's editorial team seems to have it in for a DA that they didn't endorse and, presumably, don't like. Getting their facts wrong like this, however, means the "egg" is really on their face.

The solution, under such circumstances, is to run a correction and explain the error. On that Sunday, the C-L ran a short correction on page 2A:

Felony charges brought by Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson against Jackson Mayor Frank Melton are separate from the gun charges brought by State Attorney General Jim Hood. Therefore, Peterson's office was not a party to Melton's plea in the gun cases. In an editorial in Saturday's editions, the cases from each office were incorrectly linked.
Props to the Ledger for admitting such a sloppy mistake in their rush to nail the district attorney. But points off for the C-L for not publishing it on the Editorial page, where it would have a better chance of being seen by readers.

Most disconcertingly, the correction offers no context for the correction and no explanation, something that is truly important—indeed, ethical—in a case like this, where the C-L is purporting to hold a public official accountable, but messes up the facts in the process.

Indeed, their approach presents an interesting problem under Gannett's Code of Ethics, which the C-L is presumably expected to follow:

Errors should be corrected with sufficient prominence that readers who saw the original error are likely to see the correction.

The Code also says:

Although it is wise to avoid repeating the error in the correction, the correction should have sufficient context that readers will understand exactly what is being corrected.

In other words, putting the correction on the Editorial page with an explanation as to how it undermines the actual logic of the editorial would be the right decision.
And speaking of context, here's an important problem in the digital age—the editorial in its online edition still makes no indication of there being a correction. This is the one that will pop in a Google search, complete with the misleading headline and no indication that the facts are wrong.

This wouldn't be so disturbing if it wasn't a pattern with The Clarion-Ledger. But it is. They're running high-school-caliber opinion pieces (and corrections) in a state-wide daily, and it severely hurts their credibility. (See Page 7 of this issue for another example just this past week.)

Believe it or not, Gannett asserts in its Code of Conduct something it calls the "Truth Principle," wherein we learn that it is the "newspaper's duty to provide accurate information to the readers." In the original editorial, The C-L made a grave error both in fact and logic, but its editors are, quite frankly, too cowardly to make a prominent correction and offer the reader needed context.

The reason for that seems clear—for some reason, whether politics or newspapers sales, they wanted to "stick it" to the DA. But they mangled their facts, they look stupid, and now they don't want to call any more attention to it than they have to.

This is important stuff. It's about media and its responsibility in a democracy. What we have at The C-L is an editorial staff that refuses to work within the confines of its own Code of Ethics. And this isn't their first such gaffe.

We've seen the fruits of that irresponsibility writ large this year—many will agree that the people of Jackson made a mistake when they elected Frank Melton as mayor. And we did it largely because we didn't get enough good information about Mr. Melton from the mainstream media. The editors of The C-L, for instance, decided to shape the news instead of report it in part because of their own embarrassment at being embroiled in a lawsuit that involved their reporting false documents that Mr. Melton leaked to their organization when he was the head of MBN.

And the editorial team had editorialized so strenuously and unfairly against the previous mayor that it would have strained their credibility to do anything other than give Mr. Melton a free pass into office.

If there's anything this town needs, it's a Truth Principle. We've labored far too long without enough truth about our leaders, our media and the machinery of our government for us to function effectively as a democracy.

Gentlemen of the Clarion-Ledger editorial board, your credibility is strained to the breaking point on city issues. You need an independent Reader Editor who can respond to concerns, seek corrections and hold you accountable to your own Code of Ethics.

Read Todd's original thread on this error posted the day it occurred.

Previous Comments

ID
74068
Comment

Not only all that, but the Ledger's site. drives. me. crazy. I was just trying to find the link to Stringfellow's column mentioned above, and this is what comes up for his "archive" page. Note they're teasing us with a possible Stringfellow blog.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-29T19:09:09-06:00
ID
74069
Comment

Actually, his column isn't referenced here. However, here's his amazing follow-up to the false editorial Todd is railing against here. We talk about this column in a buzz this week because it turns out that—alert the media—the AG did try to interview the bodyguards and were told by their attorneys that they did not know anything relevant to Melton's gun case at Mississippi College. Lo and behold, Recio remembered a relevant little detail two days before the trial as to begin. Guess Stringfellow didn't know all that part. Why? Because it would seem that he did not ask. It would also seem that the Ledge really screwed the pooch good on their opinion package the weekend after Melton pled. Is it too much to ask for them to get the basic facts right!?! (Especially before building entire columns based on bad facts.) Personally, I am blown away by the fact that the editorial, built completely around a false statement that the Ledger corrected the next door, is sitting online without a correction or anything. Do they have no more respect for the Internets (or people who use the, er, Information Superhighway) than that!?!

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-29T19:15:20-06:00
ID
74070
Comment

Today's Clarion-Ledger editorial on crime is near-illiterate. It is so passive-filled that you can barely understand the sentences. Then there's this whopper: Some of the problems making it difficult to effectively address crime in Hinds County is politics and turf protection. That can only be overcome by citizens who insist elected officials work together. Then here's the call-to-action: The crime problem in Jackson will be solved with citizens who insist on and force action. That is why this crime summit is so important. It's past time the insisting began. ____ (Never mind that the substance of this editorial is the exact opposite of what they used during the last administration—then it was up to the mayor and the police to solve crime. Now that we have circus clowns running the city, it is up to the citizens. Thanks, Ledger, for all the great advice.)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T10:48:19-06:00
ID
74071
Comment

Also, remember that they distribute The Clarion-Ledger free in the schools. Based on the poor quality and factchecking, this needs to stop. They are going to do more harm to the children who try to read this pitiful rag than good.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T10:49:14-06:00
ID
74072
Comment

Some of the problems making it difficult to effectively address crime in Hinds County is politics and turf protection. That can only be overcome by citizens who insist elected officials work together. Allow me: Politics and turf protection make it difficult to effectively address Hinds County crime. Citizens must insist that elected officials work together to overcome these problems. (Note that revised sentence doesn't actually say anything—the reader still needs to know who politics and turf protection are preventing from addressing crime—but at least it's now a semi-literate sentence. It is important to note that The Clarion-Ledger actualy hides its lack of substance and good reporting behind bad writing filled with passives and rhetoric.)

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T10:52:47-06:00
ID
74073
Comment

ladd, is there a JFP in the library of Jackson Public Schools? To be fair and balanced, it would be great if students were given an opportunity to read both the CL and the JFP. The CL is a dangerous publication and it is laced with Spin-Doctors. What is the deal that they can never report anything without personal feelings and opinios infecting their reports? Just asking?

Author
justjess
Date
2006-11-30T11:08:40-06:00
ID
74074
Comment

No, we don't market the JFP to minors. However, many teachers request stacks of certain issues in order to use them in class discussions. That happens all the time. Same with local colleges.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T11:09:51-06:00
ID
74075
Comment

With any luck, teachers are using The Clarion-Ledger to teach how not to write. In my writing classes, I use Clarion-Ledger articles to show why the passive voice is such a journalistic and writing no-no. I've never seen more passives in one newspaper than in this paper, both in news reports and columns/editorials. The writing and reporting couldn't possibly get any lazier than in The Clarion-Ledger. The errors there clearly are not just slip-ups; they just don't seem to know any better or care enough to factcheck and go back rewrite out all the errors and passives, such as in the excerpts above. And the editors must not know how to edit. I don't know how else such drivel gets published everyday. Certainly, when you see it in the *editorials*—done by the top editors—you can see how it's a serious institutional problem. It makes my skin crawl that they give this thing to children. And they wonder why they're losing young readership!?!

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T11:14:02-06:00
ID
74076
Comment

By the way, another Ledger bad habit that rankles me no end is that they tell freelance writers that they cannot write for them if they write anything for my paper. This is so incredibly unethical of them—they have steadily tried to steal away our writers this way. The point is that freelancers (who pay their own taxes, etc.) need all the opportunities they can get to be published in a market in order to build their skills and their resume, and then go out into the big world and knock 'em dead (and eventually come on home again). To me, this shows how little The Clarion-Ledger gives a damn about local people. Instead of helping young people (or not-to-young) get exposure and experience in a variety of papers, they pull this number in order to try to strike back at us, instead of putting effort into good journalism and writing—and editing unreadable sentences like those above. And they wonder why their popularity is shrinking. Let's just say this: Not all writers go for their scheme. Casey Parks was one who was too smart to agree to such a thing when they tried to get her away from us. And the rest, shall we say, is journalistic history in the making.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T11:19:20-06:00
ID
74077
Comment

I don't see why they shouldn't share writers. It's their tactic of "exclusivity" (a la the distribution scheme) that drives the nails into their coffin. I personally think it'd be great to see writers columns appear in more than one publication. Shoot, I might even begin reading the Ledge once in awhile.

Author
Izzy
Date
2006-11-30T11:52:09-06:00
ID
74078
Comment

It's plain pettiness, Laurel. If we weren't such a threat to them, why would they give a damn? At least there's that. But it's still unfair to the writers. I loathe that paper and how it's run, but I encourage my freelancers to get clips anywhere they can—except places that make them sign away their rights. There can be some need for limited exclusivity; if someone writes a specific column for you, you can ask them not to do the same column for someone else. However, to tell someone they can't write *anything* for another publication is absurd and childish. Na, na, na, boo, boo. We da Ledge. Take that, Free Press! Meantime, the only people they're hurting are our local writers and artists. They sure don't hurt us any. We'll just find other writers and train them, or just bide our time until they piss off the freelancer enough that they tell them screw off and write for us again. It's such goob behavior, reminiscent of trying to take away our distribution spots. And we all know how well that ploy has worked out for Goliath. If I were them, I'd spend a bit more time (a) doing real reporting; not e-mail interviews, (b) factchecking and (c) actually editing stories rather than worry so much about what the JFP is doing. Their obsession with our little paper borders on sick, especially being that they try to pretend publicly that they pay no attention us us. Right.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2006-11-30T14:22:08-06:00

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