Friday, July 04, 2008

Corrections that don't

Consider this a candidate for Worst Correction of the Year. It does almost nothing a correction should and almost everything a correction shouldn't:

An article in Thursday's Local News section about fireworks deaths should have said the Detroit Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized eight cases of commercial fireworks in a garage in Mt. Pleasant this year as part of an investigation that was separate from a fireworks explosion last July that killed brothers Andy and Lee Impola of Independence Township.

Here, have some oxygen, and yes, one of the things corrections shouldn't do is try to set records for sentence length. That implies, or should imply, the main thing that corrections should do: Be clear. They have to allow a reader to find out where an error happened, which means enough detail but not a blizzard of trivia (sufficiency and relevance, if you're playing the home version of the Conversational Maxims game). They need to say exactly what was wrong; it's usually better not to repeat the error itself, but sometimes that can't be avoided. And then they need to provide correct information to replace the bad information.

What shouldn't they do? Corrections shouldn't say "should have." That's an open-ended, normative category. There's no stopping once we start down that road (which might not be a bad thing; imagine a correction like "An article on page 1A Wednesday should have been edited by somebody who had passed an undergraduate course in reasoning with statistics"). Corrections are about about specific events -- things that did happen, not things that should have happened. Of course you "should have" done the math, read the clip file, looked at the map, checked the URL, spelled it O-B-A-M-A, whatever. Save that for the annual review. The correction sets the record straight on what happened when you didn't.

How many different factual assertions might that "should have said" cover? Try putting "as opposed to" after each of these:
  1. An article in Thursday's Local News section
  2. the Detroit Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
  3. eight cases
  4. of commercial fireworks
  5. in a garage in Mt. Pleasant
  6. this year
  7. as part of an investigation that was separate from a fireworks explosion last July
OK, you could get overly picky here and continue: It was two other Impola brothers, not these two, or it was the Impola brothers from Royal Oak Township, not Independence Township. But you get the idea. I can't process the correction until I know what's being corrected, and I can't tell that without the original article. (Hint: If a correction sends you to yesterday's paper, it's a bad correction.) So forward to the recycling bin:

The same week Barse died, two brothers, Andy and Lee Impola, both of Independence Township, were killed in an explosion when they tried to make M-80-type explosives in a garage at their Lancaster Lakes apartment complex.

George Krappmann, a spokesman with the Detroit Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said the agency found eight cases of commercial fireworks in the garage where the Impola brothers were working.

So with some map searching and some guessing, it sounds like a little (5) and a lot of (6) and (7). Perhaps what we were trying to say -- or trying to avoid saying -- was on the order of:

An article Thursday incorrectly suggested that two fireworks investigations were related. The seizure of commercial fireworks in Mount Pleasant occurred this year and was not part of an investigation into a fatal explosion last year in Independence Township.

Again, that's mostly guesswork, and it does nothing to explain why -- if indeed it's the case that -- the paper attributed a bunch of false information to the BATF spokesman. But it's a start. Or at least a plea for corrections that justify their presence.

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