by Geoff Mulvihill
Last week, the Review made one of its worst mistakes in years when it reported in a front page story that Frank Wiley had been named director of security. Keith James was actually named to the post.
This error came about through a string of communication breakdowns and reporting errors. This mistake is not quite on the scale of The Chicago Tribune's 1948 story declaring Thomas Dewey the next president of the United States. But it deserves an apology to Review readers, the search committee, Keith James and Frank Wiley.
It also deserves an explanation of how the mistake occurred and a public commitment to getting the story right, a promise that the staff will learn from its mistake and take measures to ensure this type of thing won't happen again. Those are the aims of this column.
Through conversations with sources, the Review reporter who covered the story and a Review news editor who did some additional reporting, I've pieced together an account of how the mishap occurred. Senior news editor Sara Foss found out in a conversation with Dean of Student Life Services Charlene Cole-Newkirk that Oberlin had hired a director of security. Cole-Newkirk said she had already talked to a Review reporter that day. Foss assumed the reporter to whom she was referring was Catherine Tarpley, the reporter covering the security director decision. Cole-Newkirk actually talked to several of our reporters that day. Tarpley was not among them.
Foss saw James in Cole-Newkirk's office during the day and thought she recognized him, from the previous week's Review photograph of Wiley. What Foss didn't realize was that Wiley and James look somewhat similar. The man she actually saw was Keith James.
When Foss told Tarpley later in the evening that she thought Wiley had been hired, she did so understanding that Tarpley would confirm that fact. Tarpley did not realize that Foss wasn't certain of the decision.
Tarpley called David Heafitz, a student on the selection committee. Heafitz did not want to reveal who the chosen candidate was and, he said, described James in the interview. But Tarpley did not mention him by name.
Foss called Cole-Newkirk last Friday morning to confirm that the choice had been Wiley. Cole-Newkirk said she did not recall Foss mentioning him by name and Foss said she did not ask whether the choice was actually Wiley, though she did say his name.
According to Foss' notes, though, Cole-Newkirk did refer to "Frank," but not "Frank Wiley" as the choice.
The mistake we made was in not asking explicitly who the choice was, especially when Foss sensed that there was confusion in the reporting process. I want to make it clear that I'm not blaming the Review staffers who worked on the piece; both Foss and Tarpley are very careful in general. But they're human.
What happened was a basic mistake. It's something we need to emphasize more in staff meetings and the practicum in journalism class we offer for new reporters. Now, we have a new lesson to teach about the consequences of lapses of carelessness.
The Review deeply regrets this mistake.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 15; February 23, 1996
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