Pennsylvania reporter shows how to correct error

Last week, a sad news story out of Pennsylvania made the rounds. Originally, it had a bad headline and lede:

Fetus found in high school bathroom; Lancaster County student jailed on $1M bail

A 19-year-old McCaskey East High School student was charged with concealing the death of a child after she reportedly gave birth to a fetus that was found dead in a school bathroom Tuesday night.

Cherlie LaFleur, of the 300 block of North Marshall Street, was identified by police and school resource Officer David Shell after they reviewed school surveillance footage and conducted extensive interviews at the school where the male infant was apparently born prematurely Tuesday night, according to a Lancaster city police press release.

After giving birth in the bathroom, LaFleur allegedly tried to flush the infant down a toilet and, when that failed, she put it in a trash can, police said.

Such sad news about newborns these days. You’re all wise readers so you immediately see the problem. You don’t give birth to a fetus. “Fetus” is the euphemism we use for unborn children. By definition, that’s the wrong euphemism once the baby is born. I was one of the folks on social media decrying this incorrect use of the word. For example:

@mzhemingway: No one gives birth to a fetus. It’s an ontological impossibility. By definition, euphemism only applies pre-birth!

Before we look at how the PennLive.com reporter handled the negative reaction to his mistake, let’s revisit how a more august paper handled it’s egregious errors on this point. You can read tmatt’s post “Journalism and the first few minutes after childbirth.” And if you look at the two articles he singled out for their factual error, neither USA Today nor the New York Times has gotten around to correcting their erroneous stories.

Compare that embarrassing response with how the PennLive.com reporter responded to being called out:

Good afternoon everyone,

I realize an error on my part led to a lot of discussion below and I wanted to take the time to apologize for the mistake.

In the first version of the story my first paragraph read ‘fetus’ when in fact the correct terminology was an infant. A later headline was added repeating this error, and both have since been changed.

Fortunately, Pennlive’s readers caught this very quickly and let us know, allowing us to correct the error. I thank everyone who posted comments alerting us to this and again apologize for the error.

Your continued readership and helpful feedback is invaluable in holding reporters like myself to task. This is a highly opinionated and very vocal community we live in and it deserves the highest quality of journalism, including professional, objective and accurate reporting.

I know this unfortunate and indeed tragic story touches on a very sensitive topic for a lot of you, and for a lot of Americans in general these days, and I apologize again if my error helped in any way to exacerbate the already touchy subject matter.

Thanks again for bringing this to our attention and continue reading and posting. The presence of a very active comment section, especially with thoughtful, considerate input from readers, is to me a sign of a thoughtful, intelligent readership that is so highly prized by reporters and publications.

Thank you,
-J-

Who do you think handled this better? The ones who made a really bad error and haven’t corrected it? Or the one who messed up, quickly corrected it … and apologized! It’s so rare to see a reporter take responsibility for a mistake, much less thank his critics for finding and correcting the error.

I absolutely love it. It’s a great example for us all. We all mess up. We all make mistakes. We all have errors in what we do. And when we mess up and someone rebukes us, let’s stop being so defensive and start following this reporter’s lead — accept the constructive criticism graciously, quickly correct the error, take responsibility for how such errors are problematic, and move on.

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  • Jerry

    First: Grumble. Yet another commenting system that I had to tweak “NoScript” for and create yet another login for. And still the features on the old system for html are not present except for upload images? Huh? And twitter has two tweets for every post here? SIGH.

    Anyway, thanks for highlighting this apology. I hope this becomes the norm and not the exception.

    • MollieZHemingway

      Sorry for the comment system change but hopefully it will be a bit better than what we were working with immediately prior, eh?

      Though I also grumbled at having to log in to another system.

      As for the two tweet issue, Jerry, you wouldn’t believe how much we’ve tried to fix that. Perhaps not until the end of days will that be fixed …

      • Jerry

        You know what happens with change: many people get upset. I confess to being one of those, at least initially.

        And I’ve seen what appears to be a drop off in comments. I wonder if others who are less technical than I am are having trouble adjusting.

  • Fr. Richard

    I too very much praise this correction and apology. But I was surprised by one thought that Mr. Arias makes in his comments: “I know this unfortunate and indeed tragic story touches on a very sensitive topic for a lot of you…”

    I hope he does not mean that the death of a newborn baby is only a sensitive topic for a large number (a lot) of people, which would seem to imply that a fair number of people don’t care. Or does he mean something else? It’s not very clear.

  • Julia B

    My only comment since the change disappeared into the ether and never returned.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Unfortunately a number of reporters don’t know what politeness is or what an apology is. Occasionaly, with politeness and respect, I’ve contacted reporters about clear mistakes in their stories. But the reaction was not one of politeness and respect in return–especially from mainstream media writers. Instead, one usually gets nasty comments about being a right-winger, etc. .

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