New transparency calls for Toronto Star to reopen newsroom debate about when to tell readers a mistake is “due to an editing error,” writes public editor Kathy English. 

By Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star

Corrections published in the Toronto Star never tell you the whole story about how an error occurred and who caused the mistake.

While we most always know these facts, having put some effort into seeking to understand what went wrong, long-standing Star policy decrees that our corrections don’t include such information. As the corrections policy states: “Publishing the Star is a team effort and published corrections do not ascribe blame within the Star.”

That means that unlike some news organizations, the Star does not state “due to an editing error” when an editor adds a mistake to a reporter’s work.

Is it time to reconsider this policy and provide readers with a fuller picture of the reality that the reporter whose name is on the article isn’t always at fault? In this age of Twitter transparency does it make sense to withhold critical facts about who is responsible for mistakes?

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In publishing an apology this week to rectify an egregious error involving the misinterpretation of a tweet by Cheri DiNovo, the NDP candidate for Parkdale-High Park, this ongoing newsroom debate was reopened — rightly I believe — by the reporter who was attacked on Twitter for a mistake he never made.

As the apology told you, the May 25 story about NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s reaction to a critical letter from long-time NDP backers said that DiNovo had tweeted “sarcastically” to thank NDP supporter Cathy Crowe for her endorsement. In fact, DiNovo’s tweet was not intended sarcastically; it was a sincere thank you to Crowe for endorsing her candidacy.

What our apology did not tell you is that reporter Bruce Campion-Smith , the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief, did not make this mistake. The word “but” was removed from the start of the sentence and the word “sarcastically” added in by David Henderson, the editor who handled the story.

But it was Campion-Smith who took flak here. Numerous nasty tweets were lobbed his way. He was accused of “lazy journalism,” “false reporting and “a serious abrogation of journalistic integrity.”

In bringing the error to our attention for correction, Campion-Smith requested we tell readers the mistake was due to an editing error. Following discussion with the newsroom’s most senior editors, we decided to abide by the Star’s policy, reasoning that we should not veer from long-standing policy on the fly without fuller newsroom discussion.

While the majority of the Star’s mistakes requiring correction are in fact made by reporters, coincidentally on that same day we published two other corrections in which editors messed up writers’ work. In upholding Star policy, I also had to decline those writers’ requests to share that with readers.

Campion-Smith made a compelling case as to why the Star’s policy is unfair to reporters in those rare instances when an editor inserts an error into a story.

To continue reading this column, please go where it was originally published.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.