Part of a series on the troubles at The Post-Star and its parent company Lee Enterprises.
Glens Falls Post-Star Editor Ken Tingley is having difficulty with arithmetic again. On PostStar.com last week, his Front Page blog post titled "Showing you is different than telling you" referred to "all 58 counties in the state" (NY). The post appeared Thursday afternoon. A reader comment pointing out the error Friday morning was never posted, and yet by noontime the error disappeared without a trace, replaced by the correct number (click image to enlarge).
As has been mentioned before in this series, the Post-Star and Mr. Tingley have an on-again-off-again relationship with professional journalism standards, particularly where online content is concerned. The About Us page at PostStar.com still promotes the newspaper as a "twenty-nine-thousand circulation, daily newspaper" even though the newspaper’s daily circulation dropped well below that level in 2010 (yet the same page has updated the awards the paper and its employees have received at least through 2011).
Of course this is not the first time Mr. Tingley has made mistakes on his blogs. He most famously twice used the term "proof readers" in a post (and comments) scolding commenters and letter writers for lax grammar. This, though, is the first instance we know of where a factual mistake was corrected after the fact without acknowledgement.
The level of professional journalism to which Mr. Tingley aspires has a low tolerance for ethical corner cutting. In its section devoted to accountability, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Code states: Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.*
Treatment of online errors is not a new issue to the profession. The American Society of News Editors addressed the subject in 2001.
In 2008 the Columbia Missourian devoted an entire blog to the topic, complete with historical context and a common sense comprehensive policy statement. It also addresses how severely the credibility of news organizations is damaged by lack of candor and transparency.
Three years ago, a commentary at the Columbia Journalism Review referred to an article at MediaBugs.org that advanced another set of common sense standards for correcting factual errors in online content, many of which had already been widely adopted throughout the industry.
None of the best practices advanced by journalism’s ethical watchdogs condone the sort of surreptitious content scrubbing that happened last week at PostStar.com.
For a newspaper that sells itself as a model of professional integrity and has built a reputation for shining light on less than transparent operations in public offices, the honorable and consistent recourse would be for Mr. Tingley and the Post-Star to adopt a firm set of online correction standards and post them prominently at PostStar.com. And then, of course, adhere to them.
Failing that, here are a few handy poses Mr. Tingley might strike while defending or explaining future lapses, should the question of New York State counties arise again:
The Global/Universal Posture: Its so hard to count them when they keep moving around—the constant rotating on the earth’s axis, and revolving around the sun. . .and don’t get us started on the ever-accelerating expansion of the universe!
The Hyperlocal Posture: Our news coverage is so close-to-home that we don’t give a hoot how many counties lie outside our circulation radius!
The Nativist Posture: We refuse to acknowledge the existence of Oswego, Otsego, Otisco and Otasco Counties until they give themselves English names!
The Where’s Waldo Posture: Dude, for a moment there we thought we were living in California.
The Taught-to-the-Test Posture: 58 out of 62 is 93.5%. We still get an "A."
Of course, when all else fails, there’s always the truth: Hey, I’m human. I made a mistake. I thought I knew a fact and I didn’t and I didn’t bother to have another editor read it before I sent it out over my name and under the Post-Star brand.
(Mark Wilson is an editorial cartoonist and illustrator living in Saranac Lake, NY. Since 1999 his work has appeared in news media across upstate New York, including, from 2000-2003, the Post-Star.)
*Note to readers: Links to charts and graphs from earlier postings in this series were broken in December 2012. They have been restored.