Washington Post “Clarifies” Investigative Report

by Dan Ward

Put this in the “things you don’t see every day” file. After complaints from the Washington, D.C., police chief, the Washington Post has added an “editor’s note” to an investigative report, making it clear that the report incorrectly implied that the police force had artificially inflated data on homicide case closures.

While there was no apology, and no admission of wrong-doing on the part of the investigative reporter, it’s about as close to an apology as you will ever see.

The original article, and an unfortunate headline, suggested that the police department had manipulated data to inflate the number of cases closed each year, using language like “statistical mishmash that makes things seem much better than they are.”

But as the chief pointed out, the data are consistent with federal crime-data guidelines, and the methodology is publicly reported. This prompted the note from the executive editor.

Though it’s extremely rare to see an admission like this (editors will almost always fall on their swords for their reporters), it points out the importance of speaking out when you believe coverage has been unfair. As PR professionals, we too often err on the side of caution, refusing to call out a reporter or editor for misrepresenting the facts. But remaining quiet in such cases does a disservice to ourselves, our clients … and to the media.

Now, did the executive editor go far enough? In my opinion, no. There is no correction here, there is no public apology, and the story remains online with the same headline. In fact, the first photo caption asks, “has her department fudged its homicide data to achieve a 94 percent closure rate for 2011?”

The best you can say is that it’s a step in the right direction.

One Response to Washington Post “Clarifies” Investigative Report

  1. […] I wrote recently about the positive way in which media outlets took responsibility for mistaken reporting around Joe Paterno’s death and the close-but-not close-enough way in which the Washington Post “clarified” a misleading report. […]

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