Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mea Culpa Monday: The longest correction ever edition

By Joe Uchill
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It may be the longest newspaper correction you’ll ever see. Last week, The Las Vegas Sun devoted 535 words, nine full paragraphs explaining six distinct ways the article manipulated statistics, misreported facts, and improperly generated sources to show that the community of Summerlin was, at least partially, racist, disillusioned about their own safety, and cake-takingly violent.

535 words, just for context, is roughly twice the length of the Gettysburg Address. It is 13 words longer than the Washington Post’s joint announcement that Janet Cook would be returning the Pulitzer she won at the paper and retraction of the story that won it - and she made the whole story up. As of this Sunday evening writing, it is longer than the past three weeks of Journal Sentinel corrections combined.

535 words was more than a third of the size of the original article.

The story, penned by Joe Schoenmann, did get one description of the Vegas suburb correct. It is affluent. And that affluence appears to have sparked a pattern of backlash in the paper against Summerlin. Steve Friess, who first noted the enormity of the correction, comments that the story was built around the irony that a shooting happened in area where wealthy residents believed they were immune to crime. A belief vindictively described in a a letter to the editor the next day:

“I am truly appalled at the comments made by some residents of Summerlin. Yes, Summerlin is a very beautiful master-planned community, but it is simply a location obviously some of the people who reside there are not ‘in touch’ with reality.

Do you honestly believe that the location or size of your home, what you drive, how you look or where your children attend school protects you from reality?”

The ‘comments’ referenced are reader comments reprinted from the Sun’s web site. Only nobody is sure that the comments were, as implied, from the gated community’s  residents (Friess claims the IP addresses attached to the posts show otherwise).

Those quotes make up two of the six separate errors covered by the correction. Schoenmann also refered to a famous gang as a “Summelin gang” – they weren’t – and that the full gang had escaped prison sentences – they hadn’t. He inflated crime statistics in the developed area around a Summerlin high school, and sneakily compared it to the understandably lower crime in the undeveloped area around a Durango, NV, school.

"The picture painted by the numbers,” Shoenman concludes, “..shows that contrary to the rosy marketing and public relations image, Summerlin is far from immune to the ills found in any major community.”

And it’s true. Lots of major communities have unfounded fears against them.

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