Basic rules and readers' trust

Rarely is there a graceful way to admit mistakes to 15,000 people, but occasionally it is necessary to stand up in front of that exceptionally large crowd, take a deep breath and start to apologize. Of course, because I am making amends in print rather than in person, I only have to stand figuratively. But I promise you the deep breath and the apology are real.

On these pages yesterday, I wrote a column explaining how last year The Chronicle made mistakes on our editorial pages that led us to recognize areas where we were failing our readership-and develop better practices. Unfortunately, those better practices were not sufficient to keep every item in our paper unimpeachable and mistake-free yesterday.

In Adam Yoffie's Oct. 17 column entitled "Reflections on the PSM 1 year later," he quoted an unnamed Duke student who is helping organize a conference on socially responsible investing at the University of Pennsylvania. The student noted in the quote that Sudan was added as a conference subject because of the surge of activism related to the topic on college campuses.

Yoffie came in Sunday afternoon so that I could edit his column. Given the potentially inflammatory nature of any opinion regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we mulled over several instances of word choice and made several changes to the column. The quote from the student did not raise any questions for me.

Monday evening, however, I received an e-mail from the quoted student explaining that Yoffie never identified himself as a reporter when asking questions about the conference via e-mail. The student considered their exchange casual and never expected to see any of their conversation in print.

One of the principal rules of journalism is to identify yourself as a reporter when talking to sources. In The Chronicle's news training, we highlight this fact repeatedly. Once a source knows that he is talking with a reporter, anything he says is printable, but until that journalist-source relationship is established and understood, nothing should be considered public.

Mistakes, however, do happen. The Chronicle did not communicate the importance of reporter identification clearly enough to our columnists. In this sense, we fell short as editors and as teachers.

But that does not excuse any violation of such a fundamental practice. It is highly unfair to be interviewed without knowing it, even if there are no disastrous consequences. For this reason, Yoffie has been suspended for two columns. His next column will run Nov. 28, and at that time he will face no lingering repercussions from The Chronicle.

Yoffie told us last night that when he wrote his column he was aware he had not fully identified himself as a reporter, and he attempted to compensate for this by quoting the student anonymously. Had I communicated better with Yoffie during the editing process, this information would have led us to eliminate the quote from the column.

During our investigation Monday, we concluded that Yoffie had attempted to use his information legitimately, even if it was a misguided attempt. He also maintained the original meaning of the source's words.

In light of this information, we felt that asking or forcing Yoffie to resign would have been too extreme a response.

The Chronicle also realizes that our editing process failed to catch the lapse in basic journalistic practice. For this, we apologize to you, our readers.

We will hold a mandatory meeting with our columnists to review and reiterate proper interviewing procedures. Once this meeting occurs, a columnist will not be allowed to write for the paper unless she has attended or otherwise received the additional review of ethics.

There are likely more ways in which we could prevent errors such as this in the future. One of the untold, self-reflexive truths of The Chronicle is that while we strive to be a professional-grade newspaper, we are also an institution of teaching and learning. We are learning from yesterday's mistake. We hope that you will respect our attempts to make amends. As always, please tell us what we can do to strengthen your trust in us.

Kelly Rohrs is editorial page editor for The Chronicle.



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