”If it leads it bleeds [sic].”
Connie St Louis
“Don’t bury the lede,” is familiar advice to journalists. But the recent correction to Rebecca Ratcliffe’s early coverage for the Guardian of Tim Hunt’s infamous toast in Seoul demonstrates the effectiveness, even viciousness, with which the technique can also be deployed to further an ideological agenda. It turns out the Guardian didn’t just bury the lede—they murdered it.
The basic facts around which Ratcliffe’s article is written are stated in the first three paragraphs:
Scientists should work in gender-segregated labs, according to a Nobel laureate, who said the trouble with “girls” is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry when criticised.
Tim Hunt, an English biochemist who admitted that he has a reputation for being a “chauvinist”, said to the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
Hunt said he was in favour of single-sex labs, adding that he didn’t want to “stand in the way of women”.
This is what (especially American) journalists refer to as the “lede”, which establishes the situation that the story is about. Let me emphasize the most salient "facts", which are of course also those that made Sir Tim so famous this summer. Ratcliffe informs her readers that “according to” Tim Hunt, “scientists should work in gender-segregated labs.” She repeats this again to be sure we’ve got it: “Hunt said he was in favour of single sex labs” (my emphasis). She also notes in passing that Hunt “admitted that he has a reputation for being a chauvinist’” (my emphasis, again).
With those facts established, we’d be forgiven if we thought “You must be joking?” would have been a rhetorical question. And a sufficiently curious or outraged reader is entitled to know what Hunt said when the journalist writing this curiously outrageous story contacted him for comment. Until two days ago, the reader was being told that he “could not be reached for comment”.
Now, Ratcliffe had, in fact, tried to get a comment from him. Here’s how the reader’s editor at the Guardian put it when Louise Mensch asked him about it:
Rebecca Ratcliffe was asked to cover the story by the news desk, which had seen it on other new websites and the front page of The Times. She emailed Prof Hunt at 00.55 on June 10 and got his out of office message. She then filed her story, which was scheduled for launch on the site at 6.53 later that morning. By the time she got home she saw an email from Prof Hunt timed at 01.55 … She sent that to the night news desk to append to her story scheduled for launch at 06.53 and went to bed.
But the night news desk missed it, it seems, and by the time anything could be done about it, Tim Hunt’s explanation was or would soon be public anyway, so they didn’t deem a correction of the article necessary. Until now, at Louise’s urging, when the “could not be reached” formulation has been replaced with the following:
Hunt, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering protein molecules that control the division of cells, said when contacted for a comment: “I’m very sorry that what I thought were light-hearted ironic remarks were taken so seriously, and I’m very sorry if people took offence. I certainly did not mean to demean women, but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.”
In other words, this is the story that Ratcliffe and the Guardian would have liked to publish and which only an “editing error” prevented from seeing the light of day. Given that Hunt’s version of events would come out within hours anyway, the Guardian did not think the difference very great.
I sort of agree with them. The "corrected" version is as misleading as the one they originally published. Once they knew that Hunt’s account contradicted the “facts” stated in the lede, they should have buried not the lede but the story, or at least put its publication on hold pending further investigation. If you cannot confidently assert that Hunt said labs should be sex-segregated, nor that he admitted he was a known chauvinist, but must report that he claims to have been kidding, then you’ve got some research to do before you print any of these things. (It's important here to remember that all reasonable people today agree that he was, in fact, kidding, at least about the segregated labs.) The paragraph that Ratcliffe wanted to have "appended" to the article simply belies the claims made in the lede.
I believe journalists used to say “Stop the presses!” Some stories, in any case, should be stopped before they're published. When that fails, they should be corrected. And some corrections should really just be retractions, i.e., admissions that the paper got the story wrong.
Nowadays, it seems, journalists are happy to let their stories bleed as long as they lead. Maybe I just have too high expectations of journalism, but I thought that if you’re working on a story about someone who (you think) “admitted” he was a chauvinist, and, when you reach out for comment, he says, “I was being ironic,” surely you can’t print “he admitted he’s a chauvinist” in the lede and just also print “he says he was being ironic” in the last paragraph. Surely, you now have to either abandon the story, or, at “best”, write that "it was rumoured on Twitter that he had admitted..."? (I think we can all agree that this would be a pretty unsensational story.) A news article isn’t a chronological record of the things you heard while researching it, letting you say what you thought was true until you get to the last paragraph and say that it turned out to be false. A news story is a presentation of the current facts as best as you’ve been able to determine them. Right?