Susan Baer's Jan. 8 Washington Post Magazine story about Page and Robert Melton is the kind of deeply affecting piece out on which a reporter should be able to dine for years. It told the story of former Post reporter Robert Melton's stroke and subsequent hypoxic-ischemic brain injury, and of Page Melton's heartbreaking decision to eventually marry another man while continuing to care for Robert.
No wonder, then, that the correction atop the story bugged Baer. It read: "An earlier version of this article incorrectly described a doctor’s specialty. Nathan Zasler is a specialist in brain-injury medicine, not a neurologist. This version has been corrected."
So Baer, a veteran of the Baltimore Sun and Washingtonian, emailed Sydney Trent, a senior editor for the Post's Style section who also works on the magazine, to see if there was any way to get that gnarly nub of journalistic hygiene off the top. "I'll understand if there's nothing to be done, but since the cx has run in the paper and the online version is correct, it seems like we've covered all the bases," she wrote.
Yesterday morning, Trent forwarded Baer's note to Amanda McGrath, the Post's innovations editor for lifestyle and entertainment who occasionally helps out with the online production of the magazine. " Hi Amanda," she wrote. "A favor: Can we take the blaring correction off the online version so the writer of this huge hit story (about the brain-injured Post journalist and his wife) can send the link without embarrassment? Or perhaps if not we can tuck it at the bottom?"
"I told her we don't functionally control where the correction strip appears," says McGrath, who says the request went no further than her.
The transaction might have ended there, but Trent also copied the request to an email list called "features" that goes out to quite a few people. It started to get forwarded around the Post newsroom not long after.
Post policy is not favorable to such requests. The paper's correction policy reads: "The change should be made within the article and the correction should also be noted at the top of the item."
That's the sort of transparency journalism geeks like me get all weak-kneed over, but I can also attest that it's not much fun to see a piece you spent a long time on kick off on a note of what can feel like a five-star piece of nitpickery.
But, and this is really important for journalists, very few of whom aren't clinically self-centered, to remember: The correction's not there to make you feel bad. Baer might not like having Nathan Zasler's correct medical specialty atop her story, but I'm willing to bet Zasler appreciates it fully.
The New York Times places its corrections at the bottom of pieces that have earned them. The Los Angeles Times plonks them two paragraphs into the story, where they almost look like text ads. Guardian? Bottom of page, plus a blog post. I don't think it matters too much where they land, although I feel like placing them up top actually adds to most stories' credibility, essentially stamping a corrected piece with a QC inspector's number. Acknowledging your errors after they've been fixed is the exact opposite of something to be embarrassed about.
Lynn Medford, who edited Baer's piece, empathizes with the writer and stresses that Baer didn't ask for the correction to be nuked altogether. "It wasn't like it was a major correction," she says. "But there's no leeway on that with us. It goes where it goes. For example, our corrections in print go on Page Two as soon as possible."
Nor does a print correction grant some sort of Internet amnesty. I'm not clear on where or when the correction ran, since the story went online on Jan. 5 and my hard copies of that week's Posts have been in the gloved hands of Alexandria, Va.'s recycling program since Jan. 12.
UPDATED 2/2/12: Trent emails: "I'm on leave and out of town. I was also confused since I know you as an arts editor, not a media writer. But I just want to make sure you know there's nothing at all nefarious here. I have never edited Susan, I just met her briefly with Lynn Medford a couple weeks ago and if I'm guilty of anything it's of overempathizing and being embarrassingly fuzzy on our Web correction policy as it relates to stories that were posted and corrected weeks prior. I also have no supervisory power in this regard. Now I regret inquiring, but I think the agenda of the person who forwarded that internal email to TBD is more concerning. My sincere apologies to Post readers and journalists for any confusion. For the sake of the clarity and transparency you refer to, please post this email in its entirety with your original post."
The correction's still up there, in all its small-bore glory. Long may it blare.