Opinion: Our commitment to accuracy

Gary Miles

Accuracy has long been a core value of The Detroit News.

Transparency has often, but not consistently, been so highly placed.

As the new editor and publisher of The News, I recognize that trust in our work can only be ensured if our commitment to accuracy is paired with a deference to transparency.

Gary Miles, editor and publisher of The Detroit News.

Last week, we broke that trust in a way unbeknownst to many, but which deserves a frank explanation and apology.

On Sunday, The News published on our website a story containing background information on the Rev. Charles Adams. We reported earlier that his declining health led him to retire from Hartford Memorial Baptist Church. The headline atop of the story we published Sunday said the Rev. Adams had died. He had not.

It was a mistake for which I am deeply sorry.

The story was compiled largely from our piece on this retirement. And it was pulled together because we received a tip earlier Sunday that Adams' health was failing.

It is perhaps not well known, but newspapers have long compiled advance material for obituaries. This is due partly to our competitive business and significantly because of our deadlines. If we were to confirm the death of a prominent citizen just 15 minutes before deadline, a writer would be hard-pressed to write a fitting tribute.

Obituaries, after all, are less about the death than they are celebrations of a life. Readers and the deceased deserve as much.

Writing obituaries in advance, however, is a delicate art -- and a risky business.

We journalists have an obligation not only to be sensitive, but also to safeguard against premature publication.

We failed when the material on the Rev. Adams story was inadvertently posted. This was not a reporting error; there was never a time The News believed that Rev. Adams had died.

The post came about three hours after we reported that another prominent member of Metro Detroit's black community, the beloved Rep. John Conyers Jr., had died. This piled grief upon grief for many in our community.

Although the Adams file was removed quickly, search engines detected its creation, and astute social media observers passed it around the globe. The headline lived on well after the story was unpublished.

We did not so quickly correct the mistake.

That may have contributed to at least one theory that gained steam: Had The News confused Rep. Conyers with Rev. Adams? The theory was fueled by the fact that when you could no longer find the Adams story online, our homepage prominently featured the Conyers story.

We did not for a moment confuse these iconic leaders.

Our delay in acknowledging the error was briefly complicated by a journalistic question: How best to correct a story that no longer is published?

The answer was just as straight forward: We accurately updated readers on the Rev. Adams' health and publicly apologized.

All of this transpired with the best of intentions — informing our readers as fully and as quickly as possible.

We trust that our commitment to accuracy is well known. It was 103 years ago tomorrow, after all, that the editor-in-chief of The News summarized to his deputy that The News should be "accurate as far as human effort can obtain accuracy."

Also documented was the impact of an error.

"Never leave the reader of The News misinformed on any subject. If you wrongfully write that a man has done something that he did not do, or has said something that he did not say, you do him an injustice—that's one. But you also do thousands of readers an injustice, leaving them misinformed as to the character of the man dealt with."

Upholding these values, and others like it, remain critical to fulfilling our role as the press.

Thomas Jefferson pointed out that our Republic is a great experiment based on the idea that man "may be governed by reason and truth.

"Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press."

For all of our faults, that remains true today.

Gary Miles is the editor and publisher of The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 222-2594 or gmiles@detroitnews.com.