How To Admit A Mistake The Right Way

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

For years, when major news outlets had to admit factual errors or other major mistakes, they drew the most respect and admiration when they opened up with full disclosure and in-depth investigations of what went wrong and why.

That is what makes this weekend's 60 Minutes apology so disappointing.

60 Minutes has always been the gold standard, not only for news magazines but for quality journalism. Even nine years ago, when it conducted an internal review of the 60 Minutes II report on George W. Bush's Air National Guard service, it appointed an outside panel to look at the facts and, rightly or wrongly, fired four staffers. It also helped lead to the eventual departure of legendary anchor Dan Rather.

Fast forward to today, and we find 60 Minutes' October 27 story on Benghazi has been retracted, given that Dylan Davies, the key source witness, apparently lied about his actions the night of the September 2012 terror attacks. But CBS stonewalled critics for days, long after serious questions about Davies' credibility had arisen.

Then the 90-second apology Sunday night by correspondent Lara Logan left a lot of unanswered questions about how the mistake occurred and what, if anything, was going to be reviewed further at CBS News.

All day Monday, criticism mounted from all corners of the media world, with observers saying the correction did not do enough to explain what happened or provide hope that further understanding would be given.

This is a stark contrast from some of the most well-known corrections and reviews of journalism disasters dating back decades. In most cases, such open-book approaches to admitting mistakes and explaining have helped news outlets regain credibility and draw in reader trust.

Among them is the infamous 1980 Washington Post story, Jimmy's World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of an eight-year-old boy who was a heroin addict. After it was revealed reporter Janet Cooke had fabricated the piece, the Post returned her Pulitzer, fired Cooke and published a lengthy account of what went wrong by then-Ombudsman Bill Green.

In addition, Executive Editor Ben Bradlee offered to resign. But as the explanation drew acceptance, he remained on the job for another 10 years. Had the Post not been so open and willing to admit its mistake, and explain how it happened, perhaps Bradlee is not allowed to remain.

Other examples of news outlets doing it right with open, in-depth corrections and explanations of mistakes include:

Dateline NBC's Faulty GM Crash Test: The NBC news magazine had wrongly rigged crash tests of GM trucks to falsely claim they were unsafe in 1992. An internal review found producers at fault and led to their firings, as well as an internal policy change to protect the network from future wrongdoing.

The New Republic And Stephen Glass' Fabrications: The respected news and political magazine revealed numerous false stories from associate editor Stephen Glass in 1998 after investigated a story about computer hackers that could not be verified. Glass was eventually fired, the magazine published an apology, and conducted an internal review revealing Glass had fabricated all or part of 27 of 41 pieces he had written between 1995 and 1998.

Los Angeles Times Staples Center Scandal: The newspaper was criticized in 1999 for publishing a special Sunday magazine about the new Staples Center arena with an agreement that split ad revenue from the magazine with the arena itself. The debacle later led to the departure of Publisher Kathryn Downing and Editor Michael Parks. Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. Times media writer David Shaw penned a lengthy series about what happened and how it would be corrected.

The New York Times Jayson Blair Controversy: On Mother's Day, May 11, 2003, the Times published a four-page report on how Jayson Blair, a young reporter, had committed a long list of infractions - from plagiarism to outright falsifications - over several years. The scandal led to the firings of Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd, while also prompting the paper to hire its first public editor.

In each case, the subject of the mistaken report or other error was open about what went wrong and willing to take the hit for credibility and ethical miscues. In the end, however, that allowed it to regain trust and journalistic integrity.

CBS News chief Jeff Fager concedes that the Benghazi debacle is a grave error, calling it "as big a mistake as there has been" in 60 Minutes. But the network has so far resisted calls to give a full accounting of how the report ended up on the air. 

No newsroom can weather a storm of ethical disruption like Jimmy's World, Jayson Blair or Benghazi unless it is willing to admit mistakes and be completely transparent about what went wrong. In each of the past cases, such disclosures allowed credibility to be rebuilt.

Unless 60 Minutes is willing to do that in this case, it will likely always have an embarrassing, noticeable scar and, perhaps, mistrust from many in its audience.

The Washington Post, The New York Times
60 Minutes, CBS News
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