Monday, September 5, 2011

When is retraction the right decision?

Yesterday, I wrote a post criticizing our new superintendent for saying that she didn't have a position on school prayer. This was based on a summary of a meeting that I read in the Ann Arbor Journal. The idea that a person with years in educational administration didn't have a position on school prayer seemed so unlikely that I actually titled the post, "Did she really say that?"

Then I got an email from Liz Margolis, AAPS Communications Director, saying that the summary was incorrect. I updated the post with Liz Margolis' comments.

Later that night, I got a comment on the post from Ahmar Iqbal, one of the school board candidates, saying that the summary was incorrect, and essentially affirming what Liz Margolis had said.

At this point, I started wondering--should I pull this post? I'm not really sure about the protocols here, because I'm relatively new to blogging. I think it's one thing to leave a post up if you make a mistake that has a small bearing on the post--but if the main point is completely incorrect, then it seems to me it should be completely retracted.

(I admit that I was a little saddened by the idea of retracting a post--especially since I had put in some great vocabulary words! Words like obsequious and crestfallen! But just because I think I wrote something intelligent and funny doesn't mean that it shouldn't be retracted.)

Although some news organizations seem to have taken the point of view that once a post is posted, it can never be retracted, it can only be "corrected," not everyone agrees. In the science world, retractions from scientific journals happen frequently enough that there is now a blog, Retraction Watch, dedicated to identifying how and why scientific papers get retracted. Common reasons for retraction include falsification of data, plagiarism, and mistaken analysis of data. In fact, Retraction Watch just made it onto one of my favorite NPR shows, On the Media. You can find the link to that discussion here.

Obviously, my posts are not scientific papers, but at this point I had begun thinking that what had happened was akin to "mistaken analysis" and should be retracted. After all: was it my fault for relying on a secondary source (a news report) and not a primary source (being there)?

And then, this morning, I got on the computer and saw another comment. This comment is from Albert Howard, another school board candidate, and--in fact--the one who asked the question. And his recollection supports (more or less) the version in the Ann Arbor Journal. [The Journal, by the way, has not--as yet--posted a correction.]

So at this point, I think the conversation embedded in the original post itself is interesting. It brings up a lot of issues around recollection and reportage, or--as my husband said to me--the nuance of the conversation. I wasn't at the meeting, so I can't give you my first-person memory.

Recently, in the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Dave Askins wrote about conflicting memories of another meeting (Column: Video Replay Review for City Council). He wrote:
At issue is whether two seasons ago, back in February 2009, city of Ann Arbor CFO Tom Crawford recommended to the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority that the DDA have a policy to maintain a minimum fund balance as a reserve, and specifically, whether a minimum reserve amount was specified. . . 
The remarks made by Crawford – which everyone seems to recall (albeit differently) – took place in plain view on the public field of play, at the Feb. 17, 2009 city council meeting. (Emphasis added.)
Askins argues that--just as we do in many sports--we should go to the video replay for a definitive account. Since in the business of blogging about the schools, I surely am an armchair quarterback, I absolutely agree.

I'm quite sure this "orientation" meeting wasn't videotaped--it wasn't a school board meeting (although regular school board meetings are.) So we now have four accounts of the same discussion. I honestly think the discussion of what happened is at least as interesting as what actually happened, so I've decided that I'm not going to retract the original post (for now--new evidence could arise!). Instead, I invite you to read it with the understanding that several people can be in the same meeting and hear different things. What does that mean for our process? I also invite you to comment on this post, or the other one.

Let's also not forget: this meeting, to provide necessary background to new school board candidates, was a good idea on the part of the school district, and I hope they continue it any time there is a contested election.


  1. It's not that you didn't raise a good point with your post, but you could have gone straight to Dr. Green and ask her yourself what she meant, and hear her out before you started assessing her opinion from a second hand source, a source that was gleaned from a starter news organization. That whole topic seemed very important to you and if you have ever played telephone you know that message get distorted. It would've been worth your time to check things out yourself, I think.
    But even if she has an opinion and you don't like it, and/or she mangles her message, there is the law to protect people from religious impositions in public spaces. I use that for lack of a better term.

  2. Anon4, I think you raise some interesting points.

    I have, to date, generally accepted the credibility of all of our local news sources. In a way, we could describe all three of our local news sources as "new," but in reality I don't think of any of them as truly new.
    The Ann Arbor Chronicle just celebrated its third anniversary, and so it is new. And yet, it is published by a veteran news person (Mary Morgan), and I think is generally believed to have extremely accurate reporting. just had its second anniversary, but in reality is a morphed-version of the Ann Arbor News. It's still owned by the same people--do they count as "new?" Their K-12 reporting is hampered by the fact that right now they don't have a K-12 reporter, although I'm told that they will be hiring someone. I hope it doesn't take many months.

    And as to the Ann Arbor Journal being new, well--that's not exactly accurate either. They started in Ann Arbor at the same time as, but they are part of the Heritage Newspapers chain, which has been publishing in Dexter, Manchester, Chelsea, etc. for many years.

    So--although you could argue they are all new, I wouldn't think of them as "new" in a way that should affect their journalistic integrity.

    You are correct, though, that I have generally taken as credible (and not needing primary source checking) all three of these news sources. Maybe that's the easy way out, taken because I do have a job, kids, etc. and this is something that I do in my "spare" time.

    On the other hand, though, I think that most people who are still getting local news are getting at least some of it from these news sources, and we need and expect them to be credible.

    Suppose that I had called Dr. Green and asked her whether she had actually said that--and let's say that she had denied it--should I have taken her word over the word of the newspapers? Or over the words of the Communications Director or school board candidates? That gets tricky too.

    You're right that there is plenty of case law regarding separation of church and state, but the law is a rather blunt instrument. In this case, I wasn't so much worried about school prayer being instituted in the Ann Arbor schools--I was, and am, much more interested in the type of person that our new superintendent is, and in how she communicates.

  3. Well, sure you can go ask someone something directly and they fudge their answer, or walk away or they answer it all to your satisfaction. That all tells you something, not just the words themselve, but when they said something how they said it etc. Don't presuppose you know what someone is going to say, certainly someone you don't know well or at all.
    I don't know about journalism and it's absolute integrity, everybody is telling a story, at the end of the day. I prefer Groucho Marx's line, "Who am I going to believe, you or my own eyes?"

  4. I think you handled it just fine, and I would be on the side to correct, rather than retract (i.e. erase) the post - this is what I do with my own blog, post updates with corrections if needed.

    Bloggers should not be expected to go to original sources when there is a report in the "legitimate" news media. We are quasi-journalists but there are limits.

  5. At the risk of being recursive (referring to something that refers back to me) I will note that the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a story up about what their reporter observed: