Saturday, December 17, 2011

When a correction is not enough


When a correction blows a hole in a previous story and actually raises more questions about what went on, is a small correction buried on page two enough?

Here's an example from The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

The original story:


What crosses the jump is this graf (Keel is Mark Keel, head of the State Law Enforcement Division):

Keel said the sanctions came because SLED’s prior administration outsourced most of the agency’s information technology work. That left the agency unable to monitor local law enforcement agencies as they used the federal system, leading to the sanctions. “I don’t know if the prior administration understood how important this particular part of the agency was."

Later, the story explained that as a result of outsourcing IT, SLED stopped doing required audits of the use of the national crime database.

The same information was picked up by AP from The State:
SLED is supposed to audit every local law enforcement agency to make sure it uses the federal crime database properly. Those audits stopped in 2007 under Keel's predecessor as the agency had most of its technology work done by outside companies. The FBI sanctioned SLED last week, but also commended the agency for taking steps to resume the audits.

OK, makes sense to me and provides a simple explanation, although one could certainly raise a bunch more questions about Keel's predecessor and the decisions to outsource IT. One might also ask why SLED wrote a contract, apparently, that did not give it an opportunity to audit, etc.

Then today comes this correction, buried at the bottom of page 2:

To my mind, that raises many more serious questions. If the IT was not outsourced, then the problems were even more clearly internal to SLED. Why did it stop monitoring? Why were no audits done?  Is there a failure of leadership or a systemic failure?

This is when a typical correction does not cut it.

The paper's online story has this graf:

Keel said the sanctions came because SLED’s prior administration had planned to outsource most of the agency’s information technology work. The plans caused SLED to lost [sic] most of its IT staff, which left the agency unable to monitor local law enforcement agencies as they used the federal system. That lead [sic] to the sanctions from the FBI.

“I don’t know if the prior administration understood how important this particular part of the agency was.”


OK, perhaps not quite so nefarious (though it still raises many questions), but it reinforces my point. The buried correction was not enough. There is an important nuance here for the necessary understanding. At least the correction should have been more robust.

But this also raises some other questions. I can't tell, because I did not see the original online version, but it appears the story has been hastily changed (circumstantial evidence comes from the two language problems note with "sic"). If that's the case, I see no note on the story indicating the change was made. That would be a transparency problem, something else the paper might want to think about in being honest with its audience.

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