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Editors Urged To Challenge Accuracy

October 15, 1998

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) _ A string of high-profile retractions by respected news organizations underscores the need for tough editors who challenge the accuracy of stories before they’re printed, the president of the Associated Press Managing Editors association said Thursday.

``Edit more skeptically,″ Reid MacCluggage, editor and publisher of The Day in New London, Conn., told members at the group’s annual meeting.

During the past year CNN retracted a story televised and published jointly with Time magazine which said the U.S. military used nerve gas to kill defectors during the Vietnam War.

The New Republic magazine and The Boston Globe acknowledged that writers made up quotes and people used in stories. And The Cincinnati Enquirer retracted a story based on information stolen from a telephone message system. The newspaper apologized to Chiquita Brands International Inc. and agreed to pay more than $10 million to avert a lawsuit.

``The Globe and the Enquirer are well-edited newspapers. Time and New Republic are well-established magazines with good reputations. CNN is a premier television network,″ said MacCluggage.

``If standards broke down at those companies, they can break down anywhere. It’s our job as editors to make sure they don’t,″ he said.

Also Thursday, AP president and chief executive officer Louis D. Boccardi led a discussion among four Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographers about capturing a defining moment in history.

The photographers were Eddie Adams, whose photograph of a South Vietnamese police colonel executing a man on the street won a Pulitzer in 1969; Jacqueline Artz-Larma, part of a team that won the prize in 1995 for coverage of the genocide in Rwanda and refugees in Zaire; Paul Vathis, who won the prize in 1962 for his photo of Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower walking together in the woods at Camp David, Md., and Nick Ut, who in 1973 photographed a 9-year-old girl running naked from a napalm blast, then got her to a jeep for a ride to the hospital.

That girl, Kim Phuc, made a surprise appearance, and told the editors how the photo changed her life. When the South Vietnamese government found her and told the world, the flood of journalists made it impossible to continue school.

``That picture again make me become another victim,″ said Ms. Phuc.

She has since made her way to Toronto, campaigned to raise awareness of the effect of war on children, and become a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

``From that picture I learn I have to help children,″ she said.

Also appearing at the meeting was Anna Deavere Smith, actress and playwright, who portrays both ordinary and famous people through dramatic interpretation of real-life conversations she’s had with them.

MacCluggage said inaccurate information sometimes gets into news reports because reporters and editors don’t have time to verify the facts or are duped by sources. Often, however, reporters and editors themselves become so involved in the story that they forget to be skeptical, MacCluggage said.

Examples, he said, include widespread reporting two years ago of an epidemic of racially motivated arson attacks on black churches in the South.

Detailed reporting by The Associated Press and USA Today showed there was little evidence the attacks were racially motivated, and that arson had occurred with equal frequency on white churches.

One problem facing news organizations is that much of the editing process is left up to junior editors who may not stand up to aggressive reporters and look critically at their stories, MacCluggage said.

Senior editors need to make sure they’re not so involved in corporate duties that decisions on critical stories are left to others.

MacCluggage also called for training programs within the APME, journalism schools and other news industry organizations to teach editors how to spot weaknesses in major stories, a process he called ``prosecuting the story.″ Newspapers also should look for reporters and editors who bring a diversity of opinion and life experience to the newsroom, he said.

``If skeptics aren’t built into the process right from the start, stories will slide onto Page One without the proper scrutiny,″ he said. ``If stories hold up on the witness stand, under rigorous cross-examination by tough editors, they will hold up under any assault.″

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