The Detroit Free Press will begin random post-publication fact-checking to look for inaccuracies that slip through its editors, one of several steps the newspaper plans in the wake of controversy surrounding a column by Mitch Albom.
Carole Leigh Hutton, publisher and editor, also pledged to readers Tuesday that the newspaper would clarify its policy on attribution and start sending letters to people written about or quoted in the paper for their assessment of the accuracy of what was published.
[Hutton explained the changes to readers in a column published today. “We’re a newsroom of fallible people. We’ll make mistakes, and we’ll correct them when we do,” she wrote. “But our goal is to make fewer of them. Adhering to our own strict policies will help us do that.”
Reforms outlined in the column include: Requiring that any complaint or allegation of an ethics violation be reported to the publisher and editor, managing editor, and public editor the day the complaint is received; that every compilation of items taken from staff and wire service reports must carry that information in a tagline attached to the text; that all syndicates from which the paper buys columns be notified of the policy on quote attribution.]
The new policies were prompted after a review of more than 600 columns by Albom turned up no pattern of inaccuracies but did find the best-selling author sometimes used quotes from other news outlets without credit, the paper reported Monday.
The review, the results of which were printed on Monday’s front page and two full pages inside, found that other Free Press columnists also have failed to give credit for quotes gathered by other news organizations.
Hutton said the problems reflect a lack of familiarity with the paper’s rules on attribution. She pledged to take steps to address them. The paper’s ethics policy requires reporters to give credit when they use the work of others.
The investigation was prompted by an April 3 column in which Albom reported that former Michigan State players Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson attended the April 2 Michigan State-North Carolina NCAA basketball game. In fact, neither was at the game. Albom wrote the column before the game took place, as if the events already had happened, based on what the players had told him they planned to do.
The paper previously has said Albom and four other employees were disciplined but did not say what action was taken. The paper also assigned five reporters and an editor to investigate Albom’s work.
Albom, host of a nationally syndicated radio show and author of the best-selling books “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” previously apologized for the column. He said in a statement Monday, “I have always been proud of my journalism, and I am glad that this long investigation has validated my hard work and my reputation.”
In Monday’s story, Albom defended his approach on using quotes from other sources, which he said editors had approved. He argued that it is more important for columnists to use quotes accurately than to identify where they came from. He also said many of the quotes were widely disseminated in the national media before his columns ran.
However, some of the quotes cited by Albom were obtained exclusively by particular media organizations.
[Hutton wrote in her column that the incident had reminded her how subjects of news stories can be treated, a lesson she hoped her entire staff would remember when covering news in the future.
“This ethical dilemma in our newsroom has given me the opportunity to know how it feels to be covered by media all over the country. It feels lousy,” she wrote. “An embarrassing number of stories written about us were incorrect, some in very big ways. Rumors with no basis in fact were reported without hesitation. Assumptions were stated with certainty. Getting it right didn’t always seem to be that important.
“That made me wonder: Was this the exception or the rule? And it made me worry: Are we just as sloppy here?” she added. “I can’t afford to wonder and worry. I have to make sure we’re not.”]