Getting the story right when you didn’t get it right

Today via Geekwire (and others) we’re hearing about how the radio show This American Life has issued a wholesale retraction of their story from January about factory working conditions at an Apple supplier in China. The full retraction is available on This American Life’s blog.

What’s interesting about this is how they’re handling the issue. News organizations make mistakes and issue retractions regularly: this isn’t a unique incident. But, as This American’s Life’s press release makes clear, this wasn’t just any story for them. This was a very big story for them.

To their credit, since they have to retract a big story, they’re doing so in a big way. They’ve essentially done a new story talking about how they got this wrong. They’re even doing a special broadcast just to focus on how they got this wrong. And, they’ve taken full and clear responsibility, apologized, and spoken openly about how this situation can impact the trust their audience puts in them.

A big mistake on a big story requires a big response to make it right. By handling this like they have, This American Life has not only taken steps that very effectively mitigate the harm of this incident, by being so open and upfront they’ve also taken steps to actively regain the trust that they acknowledge an incident like this can harm.

This is a model for how news organizations can effectively handle situations like this. They really should be commended.

2 thoughts on “Getting the story right when you didn’t get it right

  1. B. Spinoza

    I don’t know if you listened to that episode, but it was definitely a story (not a news report) from one person’s perspective. And the creator of that story (Daisey) freely admitted in the episode that he wasn’t telling the whole exact truth. Did he say he was telling a story inspired by true events? No. But This American Life did say he’s a pro storyteller & performer. To a reasonable person that should be enough to suppose that some parts of the piece (if not all) are going to be exaggerated or even fabricated, and to take it all with a hefty grain of salt. Did This American Life preface the piece by saying it’s a story or indicating that it might be more art than fact? No, but I don’t think they had to. They have aired similar pieces before (see anything by David Sedaris, another well-known storyteller with frequent appearances on the show).

    Anyway, while I applaud TAL’s effort at retraction, I wish they could have done so in a manner that doesn’t blame themselves for their listeners’ seeming inability to tell fact from plausible fiction. Having heard the episode & now reading their retraction, I think the only mistake they’re making is assuming responsibility for something their listeners should have been doing: using their critical faculties.

    1. Christopher Budd Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Those are very good points and raise questions about where the press’ responsibility ends and the audience’s begins.

      I think this would be less of an issue if their story hadn’t been so big. I think that has increased the sense of responsibility that This American Life has for ensuring the audience understands the factuality of the story.

      Your point about blaming themselves is a good one. But I would counter that in a time when organizations and companies regularly don’t take responsibility even when it’s clearly their responsibility, it’s refreshing to see someone do so, even if they may have gone overboard.

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