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COLUMN

The Ombudsman Don’t Hide Editors’ Notes; Serious screwup editing letters

John A. Hawkinson

I shall endeavor to write smaller more frequent columns rather than voluminous mammoths like this.

Inside this column

Inside this column 5

Don’t hide editors’ notes! 5

Changing people’s letters is a no-no 6

Sidebar: Edits made to Haddad’s submission 6

UA people on Editorial Board?! 6

You print it, you fix it...unless you don’t? 6

Don’t hide editors’ notes!

The Tech has run several editors’ notes lately, and I have been disappointed with their presentation. In my opinion, if something deserves an editors’ note, that means it deserves prominent placement on page four (or perhaps even page one). I do not think italic text at the top of, or within the letters section is sufficiently eye-catching, nor is mention in the errata box. Instead, the editors’ note should be placed in an area of its own, similar to the errata box, where it can be clearly seen in a casual glance.

This is hardly a new idea. Last term (and prior), The Tech published prominent editors’ notes (see examples on this page and the next).

I was particularly dismayed by the erratum published on March 16 regarding Marc Haddad G’s March 9 piece, “Twisted Logic from the Syrian Ambassador.” I was involved in discussion regarding that erratum, and I had originally argued that it should have run as an editor’s note, not an erratum, so it would receive more prominence.

The note was initially laid out as italicized text under the letters section, and I felt as if my argument had been grossly misinterpreted. The Tech’s chairman, Hangyul Chung, (a former production editor) responded to an e-mail I sent, saying, “I thought editor’s notes were usually italicized -- and putting it in a box of their own like an errata is kinda stupid and not aesthetic.”

That is wrong. Even if there were such a rule, the formatting and style of the paper are not ironclad. They exist to convey meaning, and if that meaning is best conveyed with a change, the style needs to adapt.

Ironically, both of last week’s issues carried a prominent “To Our Readers:” box asking for feedback on the Events Calendar section -- at least, it would have been prominent on page four. It ran deep inside the paper, sandwiched above the Events Calendar; to date it has received no responses.

Changing people’s letters is a no-no.

I have more to say about Haddad’s piece and its erratum. Not only was I displeased with the erratum’s formatting, but I thought its content was insufficient. It didn’t clearly explain the situation and what actually happened.

Chronology:

* On March 6, Haddad e-mailed his piece to letters@the-tech.mit.edu, and clearly identified it as a “letter” submission. Opinion Editor Vivek Rao elected to publish it as a “column,” and made several edits to the piece, including adding text in six places. Rao did not contact Haddad about this, though Rao told me he tried to call and left no message and sent no e-mail.

* The edited piece was published on March 9; see the accompanying sidebar for a comparison of the letter as submitted and the column as published.

* Haddad complained on March 10 (specifically about four additions to his piece), and the March 16 issue carried this erratum:

In Marc Haddad’s column “Twisted Logic from the Syrian Ambassador” [Mar. 9], the sentence “Just this past October, U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism called Syria ‘a sponsor of numerous terrorist organizations,’ citing groups like HAMAS and Hizbollah,” should have been attributed as an editor’s note, as should the URL referenced in the article. The editors inserted these references to substantiate the arguments of Mr. Haddad without his consent.

There is a lot that that went wrong here!

Background on opinion submissions: Submissions may be either “letters” or “columns.” The distinction is sharp at the ends, but somewhat vague and fast-and-loose where the two meet.

Short contributions written in response to items published in the paper are published under the headline “Letters To The Editor” on page four. Longer columns from staff opinion writers are published on the remaining opinion page(s); these carry the byline in roman type (i.e. not italic).

Longer letters that are responding to issues raised in the paper may be printed after page four, and can carry a tag “Letter” inset within the first paragraph. “Guest columns” also appear after page 4, but with the byline italicized, and represent longer column-style submissions that do not meet the opinion editor’s idea of a “letter.”

Got that?

(The opinion department announced the guest column byline italicization policy on Oct. 3, 2003, in a “From The Editor [sic]” note. I think this method of designating guest submissions is poor. It’s not explained anywhere, and few readers will remember the note from October. The opinion department should either resume placing a “guest column” inset tag next to guest columns, or should explain the meaning of the italics clearly, perhaps in the opinion policy box at the bottom of page four.)

Columns and letters should be edited differently: the opinion policy box mentions “The Tech reserves the right to edit or condense letters,” but the expectation is that changes will be minor: letters will only be shortened for space; minor grammar, spelling, style, punctuation corrections made; and perhaps potentially libelous claims removed.

In a column, however, an editor has more latitude. The editor should help the writer shape the argument, make wording changes, reorder sections, and perhaps add text.

In both cases, however, the relationship between the writer and editor must be well-understood by both parties. The writer should understand and approve of all changes the editor is making, and should have the opportunity to decline publication if he or she does not feel they are appropriate.

For the case of letters, the above minor corrections don’t require checking with the author, but anything more significant certainly does. Without question, adding text to a letter requires clear permission from the author.

In a column, however, the line depends on the relationship between the columnist and the editor. They should have agreed in advance on what kinds of editing are ok. In no event should anyone be surprised to see what is published under his or her own byline in a newspaper!

Hear are the problems as I see them:

1. The opinion section needs to do a better job distinguishing between “letters” and “columns,” because they require different treatment. It doesn’t help that both are e-mailed to letters@the-tech, so sometimes even the editors cannot tell the difference and have to guess (in this case, however, there should have been no question).

2. Marc Haddad’s submission should not have been printed as a “column” without his explicit consent.

3. The additions to Haddad’s column should not have been made without his explicit consent.

4. Any changes made by editors should at least be well proofread for spelling and grammar errors (e.g.: “stipulated a that Syria”?).

5. The idea that an opinion column must state its sources and attribute its facts explicitly is flawed. Rao seemed to feel that by adding some facts that buttressed claims made, then the piece was necessarily made better. That’s not always true.

Certainly it is responsible journalism for columnists to attribute their facts and explain the origin thereof, but they are not required to do so in all cases. An opinion column should be a persuasive argument, but need not be littered with footnotes following every sentence.

I don’t think a statement like “Syria still supports militant groups in the region” needs to include a quote from a US government official. Yes, it can make the statement stronger. But it can also change the very substance of the argument being made.

It is folly for an editor to presume he knows which fact to add to support a prior assertion in a column; it is then even worse to find a URL and throw it in as if it were the author’s actual source.

6. In his complaint, Haddad observes that the specific references to militant groups are “a political statement,” and could not “be construed as editorial clarifications or corrections.” He is quite right: to single out those two groups by name dramatically changes the tenor of the argument, and potentially puts Haddad at personal risk if members of those groups take exception.

7. Haddad also observes that the URL added “for more details” is from a Web site he “does not consider a reliable, respectable or impartial source.” You cannot trust everything you read on the Web. Editors should not rely upon Google to find them evidence.

8. Most importantly, the newspaper owes Haddad much more than a simple acknowledgement that a nameless editor inserted some references. It needs to publicly apologize to Haddad for injuring his public image. The Tech needs to explain why injury was done and what steps are being taken to ensure it will not happen again. The Tech needs to give a full accounting of the changes made to the piece, not simply the two worst offenses.

UA Politicians on Tech Editorial Board?!

It has come to the my attention that The Tech’s sole opinion editor, Vivek Rao, is one of the two Undergraduate Association (UA) Senators for Burton-Conner. The opinion editor selects and edits the content of the opinion section, and also serves to convene and organize The Tech’s editorial board.

The membership of The Tech’s editorial board changed on March 14 (for those of you who’ve not been closely following the opinion policy box). The Tech’s managing board voted to add Ken Nesmith to the editorial board. Nesmith is a former opinion editor. Like Rao, Nesmith is also involved in student government and the UA--he is the vice president of the class of 2004.

It’s hard to know exactly how to react to this. As I understand it, Rao’s affiliation was not disclosed at the time of his election to the position in December of 2003. I learned of it in February.

Nesmith was originally nominated for the editorial board at the Feb. 7 meeting of the managing board, at which he was not present. His affiliation was disclosed, and the managing board chose to postpone his election until March so they could discuss the issue with him.

I am concerned about the potential conflicts of interest, both when I evaluate each person individually, as well as when I evaluate them together. I may have more thoughts to offer on this subject in the future, but I wanted to get the word out, since the editors of the paper have not seen fit to provide this information otherwise.

You print it, you fix it...or not?

I’m upset with The Tech’s news department over the handling of errata. Perhaps you recall the lead article from the first issue of term, “UA Completes Under Half of Fall Projects” [Feb. 3]? In my research for my Feb. 13 column that mentioned that article, I concluded that at least three of the goals in the table from that article were misclassified. One of those was acknowledged in an erratum published Feb. 13 (“coffeehouse re-introduction”), however two others (“Nominations committee” and “Public Relations committee”) have not been acknowledged. I’ve asked the News department repeatedly to address these, both in e-mail and in person, as early as Feb. 12 and as recently as March 29.

Finally, News and Features Director Beckett W. Sterner told me, “I’m not interested in putting in the effort to resolve the issue of the two or three goals that had unclear status at the end of the article. I believe it would take too large of an effort compared to the relatively minor nature of the affair.”

Wow. That attitude is really shocking to me. It’s not as if the news department is being asked to go and fact-check everything published in that story. They were given pretty clear information, both from me and from the “UA Q&A” column published on Feb. 10. Worse, that column was accompanied by an italicized editor’s note: “The Tech is currently discussing with the UA the nature of the discrepancies and will publish errata should the article prove to include inaccuracies.”

It’s grievous enough to decline to affirm the fact of errors for which there seem to be no doubt, but it is truly egregious to promise (in print!) to publish errata, and then to fail to do so! I don’t understand what Sterner can be thinking.

In a subsequent e-mail message, Sterner clarifies that this “should not be construed as a blanket statement that I do not follow up on errors in the articles. I think that’s clear in general, evidenced by the errata we have run, and most recently by my response to the Putnam article,” referring to the March 30 errata regarding “MIT Takes First Place at Putnam Math Test” [March 19]. I’m at a loss to reconcile these positions.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.