Back in February, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series on violent cops on the city’s police force. In the series’ leadoff story, the paper ran an oversize picture of what it said was one of the San Francisco Police Department’s most fearsome offenders, Sergeant John Hackett. The merits of the story aside, a series of miscommunications among editors, reporters and a photographer led the Chron to print a picture of a private citizen and mistakenly identify it as Haggett.

The paper readily acknowledged the mistake — after the police chief gleefully pointed it out at a press conference — and ran a typically opaque correction that included the boilerplate “we regret the error” wording. Mea minima culpa. In due time, the man who was pictured as the rogue and perhaps racist cop sued the paper. On Thursday, the paper settled the suit out of court.

That’s that, except for this note in the story: “The Chronicle has not explained how the error occurred.” Immediately after printing the wrong picture, Phil Bronstein, the paper’s executive editor, said he was (to quote the Chron’s “readers’ representative”) “disposed toward telling whatever he can.” The readers’ rep himself said he agreed with Bronstein but was wary of a rush to judgment.

The point of telling the public how such a goof occurred isn’t merely to rub salt in the wounds or to hand over some hapless editor or photographer to a lynch mob, but to give readers an honest look at how the paper is run, even when things don’t look so good. At a time when online media offer more and more opportunities for audience engagement, it’s only smart for news organizations to be as transparent as they can be.

Now, four months have passed, and the Chron has stonewalled. Disappointing, but not surprising.


The Chronicle is out today with a story about The Wrong Picture: The man whose mug was identified as that of San Francisco Police Department serial batterer John Haggett is actually a cab driver and part-time security guard named Jack Neeley. The Chron, proactive as ever, covered a press conference that Neeley’s lawyer called yesterday. Neeley said he’s both perplexed and disturbed at his sudden notoriety. He doesn’t recall the paper taking his picture (the photo credit names a staff photographer and says the image was taken in 2004). He says one friend approached him after the picture ran to ask why Neeley never disclosed that he was an undercover police officer. And, since his image has been identified with a man who has beaten up the locals and subjected them to all the favorite racial and ethnic slurs, Neeley is afraid he’ll wind up the target of some aggrieved citizen.

The Chron dutifully reports all that and mentions a couple times what a swell job it’s doing responding to Neeley’s concerns. But the paper offers no explanation for how the mistake happened. I’m sure there’s a debate going on there right now about what to do. The paper has a “readers’ representative” and he’s probably getting an earful from his audience.