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READERS' REPRESENTATIVE: Errors undercut newspaper's efforts to keep credibility
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READERS' REPRESENTATIVE: Errors undercut newspaper's efforts to keep credibility

By MIRIAM PEPPER - Columnist
Date: 08/07/99 22:00

Dozens of times a day, editors hunt for photographs to illustrate stories.

A photo draws attention to a story and adds zip to the layout. Too much gray type, goes the thinking, creates dull pages.

Deadlines mean some of these photo searches become rushed efforts. Rather than assign a photographer to take a new photo, editors sometimes head to The Star library to find a previously used photo. Occasionally, these searches result in errors. If an editor fails to read an identification on a photo, it's big trouble. It means the wrong person appears and a correction must run to straighten out the confusion.

Some bloopers are especially appalling. The July 30 Preview section included such a gaffe on Page 26. To illustrate a calendar item about National Clown Week, an editor grabbed a clown photo out of a file and didn't check the name.

The clown was John Wayne Gacy, a Chicago serial killer of children. To say that readers knew better is an understatement.

"Clowns around the KC area, I'm sure, do not want to be associated with this man, this animal, the killer of children," wrote a reader in a fax.

"What a hoot," said a caller. "I told all the neighbors. I can't believe you did this."

Believe it. Even worse, the cutline read: "It's a rule. You MUST celebrate Clown Week, starting Sunday at the City Market."

Scott Wagner, City Market marketing and promotions director, fielded one complaint. The caller wondered if the market provided the wrong photo. It didn't. The mistake lies strictly within The Star.

Several readers sent e-mails saying The Star had a "sick agenda," assuming editors purposely ran the killer's photo on the "family fun" page.

It wasn't intentional. It was human error. A special editor's note ran the next day on Page 2 to correct the matter. It ended by stating: "The Star regrets the inappropriate use of this photo."

And how.

Map mistake

Just five days later, another big error appeared. This time, it was a wrong Kansas City ward map on page A-12 in Wednesday's paper. The map was labeled -- and intended -- to show how the wards voted in approving a plan to create a truck-train freight hub at Richards-Gebaur Memorial Airport. But the map mistakenly showed how the wards voted on a separate issue, approval of a plan to expand the parks board from three members to five members.

The ward map is normally a strength of newspaper coverage because it shows details of where an issue carried and where it failed. When wrong, it's a serious problem.

Here's what didn't work right: A reporter delivered the ward maps to the art department but didn't stay to explain the numbers on the printout. An artist used the wrong column of numbers to build the map. Another editor used the artist's incorrect map to craft a misleading paragraph about where the issue won and lost, and the copy desk wasn't given original numbers to be able to check the map and story.

Some errors are unavoidable. This one was avoidable and a number of safety checks failed. Making matters worse, the next day's Page 2 correction only told of "mislabeling" the map. The story was wrong, too, and the corrected map on Page 6 didn't label it as the "corrected" map, to help readers who missed the Page 2 correction. Several readers called the correction less-than-forthcoming, misleading and disappointing.

I agree. Newspaper credibility is buoyed when the paper is quick to correct its errors. Less than full disclosure is not fair play.

It's no wonder readers called Thursday confused by two starkly different ward maps, both labeled Richards-Gebaur.

"It's embarrassing, obviously," said Editor Mark Zieman. "Our goal, especially this year, is to reduce mistakes. We've gone the wrong direction lately, but I'm positive we'll get back to `getting it right' -- and soon."

Zieman urged all department heads to "redouble your efforts on accuracy."

The Star's two managing editors on Thursday distributed a note to the newsroom staff stressing verification. Zieman also ordered an overhaul of the newsroom's current verification policy.

To reach Miriam Pepper, call (816) 234-4487 or send e-mail to readerrep@kcstar.com


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