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Greater care in retraction

Late Tuesday (May 14th), The Daily retracted an article published on the same morning about a Graduate School of Business Ph.D. student who claimed to have to forage for food. The piece was the second in a series of five (now four) stories about graduate students’ experiences with affordability at Stanford. The paper explained that the story “did not meet The Daily’s requirements for independent verification of facts and source attribution.”

My colleague Megha Parwani noted that The Daily’s coverage of the college admissions scandal fell short of certain guidelines from the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics. Another, on the reader-facing side, is relevant in this circumstance:

  • Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

In retracting the May 14th story, the paper corrected matters promptly, to its credit. But it did so in a manner less prominent, careful and clear than optimal.

First, on prominence. While a retraction notice was published both online and in print, there was initially no indication in the other articles of the series that part of the series had been retracted. Part of the introductory piece’s title was changed from “five stories” to “four stories,” and other relevant areas were also changed from five to four. For most of Wednesday (May 15th), no indication that these changes had been made was given, in effect hiding the fact that there had originally been a fifth story at all. Finally, a correction notice was added on the introductory piece around 8 p.m.

More significant than the issue of prominence, The Daily did not clarify matters as carefully and clearly as it could have. In the retraction notice, the article was described simply as “an article on a graduate student’s experience with affordability at Stanford.” This minimal notice was inadequate. By providing so little information on the reasons for retracting the May 14th story, The Daily failed to give a careful and clear explanation of the decision.

The problems of care and clarity are twofold: First, by identifying the story simply as one about “a graduate student’s experience with affordability at Stanford” and giving the date of the story, the paper did not clearly enough identify which story was retracted. Two other articles in the same series, a five-part series on graduate students’ experiences with affordability at Stanford, had been published a day earlier on the 13th, and another was published a day later on the 15th. With their minimal description of the May 14th article, the paper put the onus on readers to remember — or to check via the website or finding physical copies of the paper — which story was published on which date, and to thus identify which story had been retracted. Adding to the confusion, the May 13th stories appeared as one article in print, but two articles online.

Second, the paper provided minimal information about how the article fell short of The Daily’s standards, leaving readers unable to ascertain the extent to which similar oversights may have been present in the reporting of the series’ three other stories (which were all written by the same author).

Even if the other pieces are factually accurate, they remain less credible now. It may be the case that the reporting errors were limited to the May 14th piece and did not affect other pieces in the series. But the paper gave no public assurances that they had vetted the other stories more closely and determined that the error was in fact limited to the May 14th piece.

Certainly the fact that the other articles in the series were not retracted suggests to readers that the paper believes they do not suffer from the same journalistic errors as the May 14th piece. But the paper did not say whether or not they checked the other articles, and absent such assurances, we should not as readers assume that they did. The paper thus gave readers no reason to retain faith in the veracity of the other stories in the series.

Another fact speaks against the hypothesis that the paper revisited the other articles in response to learning of errors in the May 14th piece. Mere hours after the retraction of the May 14th piece, The Daily published on May 15th the third (now second, after the retraction of the May 14th piece) article in the series.

The entire series, including the May 14th piece, was vetted before publication. However, given the problems in the May 14th piece, the paper had reason to think that the vetting was not comprehensive enough. Could they have satisfactorily revisited and revetted the piece in the hours between when the issues in the May 14th piece were found and when the May 15th piece was published? It’s possible, but of course depends on the scope of the problems in the May 14th piece. Given that the May 14th piece’s problems were extensive enough to merit retraction rather than correction, it seems unlikely that the May 15th piece could be given a clean bill of health so quickly.

The paper’s decisions in multiple facets of this retraction thus appear hasty and suggest inadequate attention to the reader-facing virtues of clear, careful and prominent error-correction. As a journalistic institution, the paper must strive to be more mindful not just of how it reports, but how the manner in which it addresses and corrects errors is communicated to the readership.

Echoing Bret Stephens in the New York Times, it is a great credit to The Daily that it is publishing this article. The Daily certainly cares deeply about careful and responsible journalism — it simply must pay closer attention to the unintended reader-facing effects of its editorial corrections.

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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