Rooting out Rowback  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   October/November 2004

Rooting out Rowback   

In your story on newspapers scrutinizing their defenses against fabrications and plagiarism ("We Mean Business," June/July 2004), editors around the country say they are setting up mechanisms to catch phony information or facts lifted from other newspapers. In this way, they hope to prove their "commitment to honesty."

This is good for newspapers. But unmentioned in the story is another systemic problem that damages credibility and honesty -- failing to fully correct stories whose premises are based on what later turns out to be misleading or inaccurate information, although it seemed correct at the time. Examples: the Jessica Lynch story in the Washington Post and coverage of the missing antiquities in Baghdad that ranged from overreach to undercount.

If the information is corrected, it's often done through the use of "rowback," which New York Times Public Editor David Okrent recently criticized as a "technique that enables a newspaper to correct itself without ever acknowledging it might have erred."

This technique--which avoids telling readers that the overall thesis or a major portion of a story is wrong--ought to be rooted out of newspapers.

Until papers aggressively report on their own and others' mistakes in coverage--usually honest mistakes that happen on daily deadlines--the public will continue to question our credibility or, at least, our willingness to be forthright about the stories we got wrong.

Ellen Shearer
William F. Thomas professor of journalism
Assistant dean and codirector, Medill News Service
Medill School of Journalism
Washington, D.C.