When a correction becomes the Public Enemy

The Washington Post

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Usually, newspaper corrections tend to fly under the radar. They appear in the paper days after the initial article with the mistake in question was published. By that time, most readers have most likely forgotten about the mistake and/or article and have moved on.

That’s not the case with Akeya Dickson’s Washington Post article on Public Enemy’s fight against poverty. The Nov. 26 article was like almost any other article you’d see in the Post: well-crafted prose with an intimate look at its subject at hand, the great hip-hop act, Public Enemy.

Unfortunately, there was a slight issue with the article, one that a few readers were quick to point out.

The article was printed in the District section, a weekly extra that is published every Thursday by the Post. So, it wasn’t until Dec. 3 that the paper published a correction for the article, which happened to be when the next edition of the District section was available. The correction also went online:

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

It’s hard to tell how “911 Is A Joke” fit into the article, as it was immediately removed from the piece. (I have been unable to retrieve the original version of the article.) In any case, this is a major issue considering that song was off a Billboard-topping album released on Mar. 20, 1990 (A Huffington Post piece on the correction incorrectly stated that the album was released on May 26, 1990, which happens to be the date that the album peaked on Billboard at No. 10.) Considering that 1) the album came out 11 years before 9/11 and 2) Public Enemy were at the peak of their fame and notoriety when they dropped Fear of a Black Planet, it’s something of a big error that Dickson mistook a song where Flavor Flav raps about the (lack of) emergency responses in black communities to have something to do with September 11th. Considering the members of Public Enemy are still prominent members of the black community, its a bit reckless to say they made a song declaring 9/11 a joke when there’s plenty of evidence saying otherwise.

So, of course, the correction went viral.

The Daily Swarm posted the correction on its site a day after the correction came out. And then it made the rounds shortly thereafter.

Rachel Maddow tweeted about it.

The Huffington Post had a write up (with an inaccuracy of its own, as I previously mentioned.)

The Washington City Paper had a little post on its Arts Blog.

Techdirt took the Post to task for the error.

The Rap Up used it as ammo for the Post’s lack of hip-hop knowledge.

All told, the short correction generated more readership than the initial article did. Dickson’s piece had a Facebook widget that said four people had posted it to their Facebook sites.

444 people linked to the Post‘s correction on Facebook; 55 people plastered the link on digg.

1,890 people linked to the article on Twitter. That’s over 59 times as many people who tweeted the original article.

All of this isn’t even counting all the write-ups linking to the correction, many of which show a healthy number of posts on Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

Clearly, Dickson and the Post made an error (UPDATE/CORRECTION: As Post music/arts critic J. Freedom du Lac points out, one cannot definitively say who at the paper caused the error – it could be an editor-introduced error as much as anyone else’s error). Unfortunately, a lot has been lost in the re-tweets and re-posts of the correction. People have been too quick to jump on the Post for the error, many of whom criticized the Post for not putting a correction up sooner.

Yet, most of these individuals would have never discovered the error had the Post not written about it in the first place: only three readers commented about the error when it first cropped up. And obviously, the Post listened.

It’s true that news sources are obligated to write corrections, and the Post is doing a good job of that. Most people who criticized the Post for including a correction a week later don’t seem to realize how good of a job the Post did with its correction. The correction went in the paper in the same section that the error appeared in, thereby ensuring that people who picked up that edition the previous week (and thereby, the last time it was available) would notice the correction for an article that appeared in that section. I’d say 99.98% of people who have been angry at the Post’s late correction have made comments only after said correction went viral: that was the official apology made by the paper, making the original error public. Who knows when the original issue was changed online, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Post fixed that error immediately after those three readers expressed their disdain at the misinterpretation of the Public Enemy song. (Another commenter actually though the group made a song called 9/11 is a joke, and made mention of it on Nov. 28. My guess is that error was taken offline shortly thereafter.)

So, when the state of the media is overrun with newspapers that are watchdogs and blogs that are watchdogs of the watchdogs, exactly how important are the “corrections” that appear? How good are they for the business of journalism? Well, as the Post’s example shows, corrections are still an important facet of media today. Considering the rate with which information travels today, it’s easy to make mistakes and errors, and even easier to overlook them. If it weren’t for a few ardent Post readers, that error about Public Enemy could have continued to exist in the article, unedited. And if it weren’t for the ethically inclined editors and staffers at the Post, that error might not have been fixed or brought to the attention of its readers. Had it not been for the Post’s own actions and role as watchdog over its own errors, this entire correction and error would have never gone beyond those few readers who cared to notice: It would have never gone viral.

So, while this might look like a case of a paper seriously screwing up, I commend the Post for honoring its readership by bringing such an egregious error to light, even while the blogs are waiting to pounce. It’s a higher road that I’m not entirely sure every media type would be willing to take, and thank goodness for the Post for making everything so clear.

Public Enemy – “911 Is A Joke”:

[youtubevid id=”EcKhscio25M&feature=PlayList&p=07218AACE7B38D12&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=20″]


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Michael Roston #

    I think I owe you a can of Coca-Cola as we both just blogged about this at like the exact same time.

  2. Leor Galil #

    Ha! I’ll take it!
    …Or I could just say your name three times. (Was it three or just once? I always forget…)

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