Friday, January 21, 2011

Correction of the (middle-aged) month

My disdain for corrections of the form "should have said" is well founded. (At least, I think so, and if you disagree, hit the comment button and have at it.) It has two main components:

First, I don't know whether "should have said" is empirical or normative -- put a bit differently, whether yours is a sin of commission or a sin of omission. Did you screw up one of the facts you reported, or did you say something (or omit something) in a way that annoyed a politically powerful constituency?

More narrowly, even if I know that "should have said" is about a misstated fact, I don't know which one was misstated. In the cutline at hand, what went wrong? Did we misspell a name? Misstate the ages?* Swap the identities? Let's go to the videotape!

Margot Schoeps and Larry Sutherland, 72, enjoy a moment in the center's common room.

That's a lot to screw up in 14 words. Two identities, one age (oh, all right, we didn't really get Larry's age wrong; we just said he looks a couple decades older than he is), and ... what's that? They weren't even enjoying the moment??? They should have been "sharing a laugh"?

For those who have not traveled much in the realms of gold, "shares a laugh with" is the ultimate in cutline cliches. It outranks "gestures as he speaks," "enjoys the mild weather," even "celebrates" when it comes to separating the sheep from the goats. But for maximum reading pleasure, you need to enjoy it in context of the dominant art above:

Rudy Smolen, 86, left, and Margot Schoeps, 88, share a joke ...

Remember, the paper (the correction ran Tuesday) hasn't yet told me what it got wrong -- just what the cutline "should have" said. So what's the failure here? Is every cutline on the page supposed to say "shares a ..."? Or is that only true when every photo on the page contains someone 80 or older?

Takeaway point: Corrections aren't about what should have happened. They're about what did happen. Tell me exactly what you did wrong, then provide the correct information. And never imagine that you can correct an error by sharing a laugh with it.

* Which, by the way, is not a requirement of cutline style -- any more than the cutline is obliged to point out that, in a photo containing one woman and one man, the one with the feminine name is on the left.

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4 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

My favorite of that ilk (the overly helpful caption (cutline? OK) was from the Moscow Times, pointing out - under a picture of the guy in the prison uniform and manacles being taken out of a van by three cops - which one was Khodorkovsky ("Former Yukos CEO and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, second from right, is escorted into a courtroom in Moscow"). Just in case we might have been confused.

10:18 AM, January 21, 2011  
Anonymous lkmnews said...

Well, if the original wording was potentially libelous, I don't think you want to repeat it.

On another point: A responsible publication should NOT make assumptions in a caption (or anywhere, in the content). "Share a laugh" is relatively provable: the image shows both individuals laughing. "Enjoy the moment" is an editorial judgement. So, I hope, that change in phrase wasn't correcting an error as much as it was only stating things that the caption-writer has evidence of.

1:22 PM, January 21, 2011  
Anonymous LisaMc said...

Yeah, I'd rather leave out a verb altogether (Betty and Fred in the common room) than have people "sharing a laugh." But if you have to have a verb, "visit" is usually neutral enough.

9:05 PM, January 21, 2011  
Blogger fev said...

I'm not in the "repeat the error" camp. My point is that it's important to be open and specific about what you did wrong. That's easy to do without the risk -- with regards to Bill and his camp, an admittedly small risk -- of confusion posed by repeating the mistake. So I'd rather the correction said "misstated Smith's academic qualifications" than "incorrectly said Smith has a doctorate in international relations." It's easier for me to figure out what kind of error I'm looking at and what the rest of the correction will rectify.

I've never heard a remotely persuasive argument for "should have said." With respect to the present case, as a regular reader, I know the Freep has an unhealthy obsession with using ages on first reference. So if a correction says a story "should have said John J. J. Smith, 34, has a doctorate in international relations," I really can't tell if an editor failed to follow house style or if a reporter failed to have a clue.

9:40 PM, January 21, 2011  

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