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Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Saying we're sorry

I've been reading with great interest about the testimony before the 9/11 commission. I was surprised and even moved by former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke's simple apology about the failure of himself and the government to prevent the attacks. If only more people would recognize the value of apology and forgiveness.

You'll have to pardon my preachy tone, but it's the Easter season. As any decent Catholic does at this time of year, we seek to unburden our hearts and souls by asking forgiveness for the wrongs (sins) we've committed. Although I'm a bit lax at engaging in reconciliation (formerly known as confession), I recognize that there are times when we have to relieve ourselves of the burdens we carry. I've always found the Jewish Day of Atonement more suited to my sensibilities. It's a beautiful thing to go directly to the people you've wronged throughout the year and ask for their forgiveness.

What's got me thinking about this today is that apologies are not something you'll often find in the media. That makes an article in this week's Editor & Publisher even more astounding.

Rick Mercier, of the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance-Star writes: "We're sorry. Sorry we let unsubstantiated claims drive our coverage. Sorry we were dismissive of experts who disputed White House charges against Iraq. Sorry we let a band of self-serving Iraqi defectors make fools of us. Sorry we fell for Colin Powell's performance at the United Nations. Sorry we couldn't bring ourselves to hold the administration's feet to the fire before the war, when it really mattered.

"Maybe we'll do a better job next war."

His apology is simple and yet carries so much power. That it was printed in a small newspaper and was crafted by a young editor and writer does not diminish its power—it strengthens the message that the media have dropped the ball. We've failed the people, whether they care or not, in the coverage of this war.

SPJ is about to host its second annual Ethics Week April 24-May 1. For the second year in a row, the week takes place amid allegations of reporters lifting quotes, plagiarizing material and manufacturing sources. "Our first effort at devoting a week to the consideration of ethics was either very well timed or very poorly timed, depending on one’s perspective. It was the week that Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times and that two Salt Lake Tribune reporters lost their jobs because they had a secret deal with a national tabloid," states SPJ's Web page on Ethics Week.

And so we come back to consider the issue of ethics. I invite you to attend a half-day workshop sponsored by the Cleveland Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists on Saturday, May 1 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Lakeside. We're going to discuss, in Socratic form, ethical issues and hear from a FOX/Tampa reporter who's efforts at being ethical have landed in her court with Rupert Murdoch. I invite everyone to review the SPJ Code of Ethics to remember that our job is to: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and, perhaps most importantly, to be accountable.

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