Don’t Rush, Don’t Judge

I wrote to the Chronicle’s “readers’ representative” — in quotes because I’d like to meet the readers who appointed him — to ask what the paper might do to explain how it wound up identifying a picture of a cabdriver/security guard, played over six columns, as that of a notoriously violent police officer. I wrote, in part:

“… Does the Chronicle intend to offer a detailed explanation of how the picture wound up in the paper? It’s clear the mistake has damaged what I’d call the presumption of credibility such a thoroughly reported and well-executed investigative project might otherwise be accorded. It’s also clear that a mere acknowledgment of error, or covering a press conference convened by an attorney for the misidentified citizen, doesn’t begin to repair the damage. At a time when papers everywhere are struggling to hang on to readers, and when more and more of the news-consuming public has become dismissive of the established media, it seems the Chron’s long-term cause would best be served by full disclosure of the steps and processes involved in this picture making it into the paper. I think readers have moved on from being a passive audience and want to be treated as partners in the project of journalism. A detailed explanation of the error would be responsive to that demand and help the paper learn how to avoid repeat episodes. …”

Although the readers’ rep is someone I worked with for a decade or so at the old Examiner, I didn’t really expect an answer. So I was pleasantly surprised to get one just a day after I emailed my note. The germane part of the reply:

“Phil [Bronstein, the Chronicle’s executive vice president and editor] has said to me and to the public (Ronn Owens show) that he’s disposed toward telling whatever he can, but he doesn’t want to compound the mistake by misstating what happened. I think that’s a fair position. I certainly wouldn’t address this until I was darn sure what I was talking about. Like you, I’d like to see this clarified sooner rather than later but I’m wary of a rush to judgment.”

That’s a pretty responsive note, I guess, though I’m bothered by the suggestion that the paper’s position is cast as a matter of how the editor feels about things. Beyond that, two observations: First, it stretches credibility a little that the paper and its editors don’t have a pretty good idea what happened. And second, it’s at least a little ironic to hear a paper that often shoots first and asks questions later plead for restraint in examining its own faux pas.

2 Replies to “Don’t Rush, Don’t Judge”

  1. Dan, that was a great letter on your part. I particularly liked the parts about “struggling to hang on to readers,” and “readers have moved on from being a passive audience and want to be treated as partners in the project of journalism.” Wow! Way to put into words what so many are feeling (and doing), and what papers are relucant to embrace.
    I don’t understand the big secrecy on the part of the paper. When you first wrote about this, I thought it was probably something so stupidly simple, like the guy who puts the jpegs on the press, and has nothing to do with the editorial process, just pulled the wrong one up. But, now, I wonder if it isn’t something more sinister. Surely not. I hope.

  2. I think the mistake probably involved a series of misunderstandings. For instance, I think they shot the cabdriver/security guard’s picture without him being aware he was being photographed. According to the date on the picture, that was in 2004. That makes me believe neither the reporters on the story nor the photographer knew what the real subject looked like, and they were probably working on a tip — “The guy is working tonight at the mall, you can get a shot of him there.” They were probably being sneaky about it because they anticipated he would not be a willing subject and they didn’t have access to police department pictures — something like that. So after that, maybe they showed a picture to their tipster, who said, yeah, that’s him. Then, as far as they were concerned they had a picture of their guy. The reporters had more important things to think about — finishing their interviews and getting the whole things written up; the photographer likely never gave the matter a second thought. When it came time to put the story together for the paper, a year and a half or even two years after the picture was taken, the artists and editors doing the packaging went with the information they were given, as they just about always do.
    I could be way off, but that’s one way it could have happened. This kind of thing could befall anyone in the news business, though the chances of an error are higher in daily news organizations because they usually don’t build in a step that requires that *everything* — every assertion of fact, including picture caption IDs — be questioned (many magazines, with more time for production, do that as a matter of course). After this, I bet that that will change at the Chronicle for major long-term projects. It should, anyway.

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