Interesting post this evening over at Regret The Error describing how a Washington Post journalist got skewered over a copy editor’s mistake in the WaPo “9/11 is a joke” corrections miniscandal.
For those who missed it, a Post story referred to that classic Public Enemy jawn as if it were about the 9/11 terrorist attacks rather than the 9-1-1 emergency system. Hilarity ensued, including the establishment of a satirical #washingtonpostcorrections tag on Twitter (“Boyz II Men is not a mentoring program”; “Father MC is not Catholic, as previously reported”).
Regret The Error notes that the WaPo’s corrections policy didn’t mention that it was a copy editor’s mistake, rather than the writer’s:
“Dickson was mortified. “You want to be able to defend yourself and you can’t,” she told me.”
Sounds horrific, right? The reason Dickson wasn’t cleared was because of the WaPo’s corrections policy:
“We do not assign internal blame for a mistake, such as distinguishing between reporting and editing errors. Ours is a collective enterprise; we share responsibility for our successes, and for our errors. However, corrections that result from our receipt of incorrect information from outside sources can explain that fact to readers.”
Regret The Error’s stance on the matter is that the policy is fundamentally broken, lacking the transparency a modern news organization needs.
However, I think that there’s a lot to praise in this policy.
Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer argued that a lot can be inferred about an organization from how it deals with SNAFUs:
“The best single question for testing an organization’s character is: What happens when people make mistakes?”
The spirit of the Post’s policy is that individuals shouldn’t be pilloried in public when a mistake is made, and that responsibility for a jointly-produced product is shared by those who had a hand in making it.
Blaming one person is easy and satisfying. It’s the go-to choice for leaders looking to shift blame away from dysfunctional cultures and systems. But more often than not, canning one person won’t keep similar errors from being made.
In fact, when others are individually singled out and shamed in public for their errors, it can demoralize others in the group: It can lead to perceptions of unfairness, negative attitudes toward the organization and resentment toward the disciplineer, as Atwater and colleagues (2001) found.
So what should the Post’s corrections blurbs look like if their purpose (beyond making factual corrections) is to encourage fewer errors and higher quality in future work?
I think it should look very much like it currently does.
Social learning in the wake of failure can happen through punishment events (Schnake, 1986). But in complex, interdependent work, avoiding failure isn’t usually a simple matter of keeping people fearful of slacking off. It requires that people work together to develop novel solutions, establish new norms, improve old processes and set more demanding goals. I find it difficult to imagine how calling out an individual copy editor in public will achieve any of those goals. It may be satisfying to writers angry at having their work brutalized — but I sincerely doubt it will do much to avoid similar mistakes recurring in the future.