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More Messages: Journalistically Correct

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Most reporters and editors don't really care for corrections, and for good reason: Who likes to have their screw-ups paraded in front of the public? But they're an absolute necessity if publications are to maintain credibility, which helps explain why there's so much debate within the journalistic community about the most appropriate way to acknowledge gaffes. And a correction in the May 3 edition of the Rocky Mountain News shows how difficult it is to strike the proper balance.

In comparison with most items of this type, which generally top out at a sentence or two, this one is an absolute epic. It reads:

A story on Page 1B Tuesday incorrectly portrayed Ronique Brown as a patient paying her first visit to NextCare Urgent Care clinic in Denver. In the story, Brown compliments the clinic, saying that it was convenient and provided good service. In fact, Brown is an employee of the clinic. The reporter had waited several hours for a patient to visit the clinic when Brown arrived. She told the reporter she had walked in after noticing the firm's sign, and said she worked at a day-care center. Tuesday, she conceded that she worked for the clinic as well as the day-care. She said she had misunderstood the reporter's questions. The Phoenix-based company that owns NextCare apologized for what it called a miscommunication and denied any "gamesmanship."

Of the two Denver dailies, the Rocky is the most consistent about copping to blunders, small and large. Granted, the Denver Post publishes its share of corrections, too, and when it does, it identifies the culprit via introductory clauses like "Because of a reporting error..." But the paper is more likely than the Rocky to run follow-up stories that modify botched information in a different context in lieu of potentially embarrassing confessions. In this case, though, the Rocky may have been better off going the new story route.

Why? This wasn't a minor mistake, like getting a digit wrong in a published phone number, and neither does it concern a small or insignificant article. The piece, headlined "Urgent-Care Clinics Fill Critical Need in Medicine," dominated the front page of the Rocky's May 2 Business section. Moreover, the explanation of Brown's actions in the correction seems frightfully inadequate. The report, by veteran reporter Rachel Brand, features a photograph of Brown playing the role of a patient, describes how quickly her needs were addressed, and notes that the cost to her was "zero," because "NextCare takes Brown's insurance." (What a shock, given that she works there.) How all of this could have happened due to "miscommunication" is a mystery worth exploring.

Yes, NextCare apologized -- but the correction still left plenty of unanswered questions, including whether the employer planned to conduct an investigation to determine if Brown would suffer disciplinary action, and why the article had such a rah-rah tone when Brand had to hang around for "several hours" before anyone came in seeking assistance. Without these details, the correction wasn't as correct as it could have been. -- Michael Roberts

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