IN THE PUBLIC’S INTEREST: Only human
Here’s a confession: Journalists make mistakes. We are human. Sometimes we are downright careless and just don’t pay enough attention to what we do. Sometimes, in the heat of the battle, even when exercising due care, mistakes still make it into the newspaper.
Newsrooms the world over, and we are no different at the Nation, put all kinds of systems in place to prevent errors, but some still slip through. If you doubt me, read the mighty New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Miami Herald and count the errors.
Look at the on-screen text on CNN, NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC and others and see the errors that pop up from time to time.
The only way to eliminate errors is to eliminate humans because we will make mistakes from time to time.
By the way, if you did not realise it, bakers make mistakes, doctors do too, as do dentists. Lawyers make them by the score. Principals inflict punishment on innocent children only to realise afterwards that they were wrong. Telephone operators will accidentally transfer you to the wrong extension and a sales attendant will quote the wrong price.
It’s your special day, a loved one takes you to dinner and the waiter brings you the wrong meal.
I readily accept that errors committed by journalists can have far more severe repercussions than a burnt salt bread from the neighbourhood baker, and that is partly because the role played by the reporter vis-à-vis the national agenda is so significant.
When journalists make errors that hurt the reputation of institutions and people, the courts are there to ensure that we make the appropriate recompense in the form of monetary damages.
But it is also important that we understand that if journalists are ever compelled to operate in an atmosphere where an error is never permissible, then the whole society will suffer. Way back in the 1960s in the famous case New York Times Co. v Sullivan, the United States Supreme Court addressed that matter. Notwithstanding that its ruling was based on the guarantees
of the United States Constitution, the principle remains instructive for us here.
In this case, the NYT had published a full page ad soliciting funds to defend civil rights movement leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr against a perjury charge in Alabama. The ad said King had been arrested seven times when, in fact, it had only been four.
Public Safety Commissioner L.B. Sullivan, who supervised the police, sued the Times alleging that the inaccurate publication was defamatory.
Several critical matters were dealt with in the court’s judgement dismissing the arguments of Sullivan’s attorneys, but as it related to errors, the following is very important: “The First Amendment protects the publication of all statements, even false ones, about the conduct of public officials except when statements are made with actual malice (with knowledge that they are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity).”
Legal experts reviewing this case have long made the point that the court wanted to make the point that to create an environment so sterile that an error would never be made would be to create an environment in which free speech would be significantly curtailed.
Be careful what you wish for.
Roy Morris is Editor-in-Chief
of THE?NATION; email [email protected]