Saturday, December 27, 2008

Corrections that don't

The Times calls this a "postscript," rather than a "correction":

An article on Tuesday previewing a report from President-elect Barack Obama about communications that his advisers had with Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich over filling Mr. Obama’s Senate seat said that Michael Strautmanis, a longtime aide to Mr. Obama who once worked for Governor Blagojevich, was “expected to be mentioned” in the report. He was not.

... and you can see why, more or less. Corrections are about binary true-and-false stuff, and it may well be that the original assertion is true -- somebody was "expected to be mentioned" and wasn't.* But it's still a chunk of data in the corrections column, and as such it's still unsatisfying, especially if you're used to seeing corrections introduced by "due to an editing error" or "because of incorrect information provided to the Daily Beagle."

What we're missing here is some indication of who did the expecting (the original is not only passive but agentless). Was it the reporter or a source? If the latter, why was the assertion thought to be worth printing? (Or, actively, who decided the thing was worth printing?) Are those the sorts of things readers ought to be told so they can better assess the reliability of stuff they read in the future?

Inquiring minds might also enjoy the Big Soviet Encyclopedia-style edit on the original story, which the Times links to out of the correction:

At least two other names also are expected to be mentioned in the review.

Valerie Jarrett, a close friend to the Obama family who is a co-chairwoman of the transition effort, could also be referred to in the report.

Where did that "also" in the second graf come from? Here's what the story looks like at Lexis-Nexis:

At least two other names also are expected to be mentioned in the review, including Michael Strautmanis, a longtime aide to Mr. Obama who once worked for Mr. Blagojevich.

Valerie Jarrett, a close friend to the Obama family who is a co-chairwoman of the transition effort, could also be referred to in the report.

From an ethics perspective, that's an interesting idea -- try to mitigate the harm you've done by scrubbing the record. But it's unusual enough that it adds to the suspicion that we aren't being told enough about the error.

UPDATE: Doug Fisher, genial host of Common Sense Journalism, touched on that and other issues in a wise posting a couple days back ago. Worth your time, as always.

* I suppose that if "he was not" meant "he was not expected to be mentioned," the thing would have been called a correction after all, but that's getting kinda cosmic.

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