This is why the Editors’ Code of Practice needs reforming

It’s a small, but telling example.

The Evening Standard ran a piece from Simon Jenkins, which included a bit of myth-recycling about what the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health had said about people clearing snow from outside their property.

There were two problems.

First, either Simon Jenkins or a sub-ed dropped the word “probably” making the quote sound far more definitive that in the original version reported in other newspapers. (I suspect it was no innocent error because there was also a similar distortion of what Lord Davies said in Parliament.)

Second, the quote was – even in the full version – wrong. It wasn’t what the IOSH had said at all.

Although the Evening Standard has today published a letter from the IOSH thoroughly rubbishing the claim (and credit to the Evening Standard for doing that), the original Simon Jenkins piece is still up on the web, retaining the error and with no indication of the subsequent letter. (Indeed, I can’t find the letter online at all.)

When newspapers get a story wrong, the standard response really should be to update the original, wrong version rather than leaving it there for people to continue to read in blissful ignorance.

That’s not only the right thing to do by whoever you’ve wronged with your error, it’s also the way to treat your readers with respect. That’s why it’s what newspapers who currently don’t do this as a matter of course should starting doing so – and why it’s what the Editors’ Code of Practice should require it of them.

Let’s hope the current consultation over the Editors’ Code of Practice brings about this change. In the meantime, I’ve dropped the newspaper a line to find out if or when they intend to correct the piece.

UPDATE: The Evening Standard replied promptly to my email (and a follow up) and I’m glad to report that they have made changes to the story – including making clear where the quote used came from, restoring the word “probably” and adding a link at the foot of the story to the letter that was published the following day. This doesn’t quite cover all my points above, but it is a big improvement.

A final thought: I’d forgotten at the time I wrote this piece that the last time I raised an issue of accuracy with the Evening Standard they also responded promptly and changed the piece. Just goes to show, it can be worth raising issues with newspapers and the Evening Standard in particular.

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3 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Jan '10 - 11:22pm

    Of course, even correcting the story doesn’t really correct the damage in cases like this. There’s this weird “conservation of outrage” effect: people hear a story about something “bad”, become outraged, hear that the story was complete lies made up by the media, remain outraged at their original target, and now it’s impossible to argue with them because there’s no rational basis for their reaction any more.

    People find it much easier to get angry than to calm down, and once they are angry, they have a strong inclination to justify that anger rather than accept it was misplaced.

  • Agree with all said. My charity went to the PCC when a very misleading magazine article was published a few years ago. It was full of medical and scientific inaccuracies and undoubtedly compounded the distress felt by many patients. The outcome was that we were told that the PCC would act if an individual was libelled, but printing verifiably wrong scientific data was not considered a problem and no action would be taken. This is not good enough.

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