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.