May 9, 2008

COMMENTARY: Regret the Error

Walking on the Ledge:
Errors that Influence
Was Learning Management System Vote Tainted by Student Newspaper?

Every campus newspaper staff wants to influence campus – but not through errors.

An article in the April 24 issue of The Campus Ledger reported Johnson County Community College (JCCC) will abandon its current Management Learning System (LMS) powered by Blackboard in favor of one powered by ANGEL Learning. The article also reported the LMS will be in place by fall 2008.

The problem? The faculty was in the midst of conducting a vote on whether to adopt ANGEL. A day after the story ran, a posting on the college's electronic mail server, Infolist, voiced faculty concerns.

“Contrary to the Campus Ledger article, the college's move to ANGEL Learnin
g is not a forgone conclusion,” the post read. “We're in the middle of the faculty vote to support or not support the move to ANGEL Learning. Faculty votes count and are crucial as no decision will be made until the voting time period concludes on Monday, April 28, 2008 at midnight.”

The posting said if the vote is affirmative, the faculty’s recommendation moves to the Academic Technology Advisory Council, the Executive Council, the Board of Trustees’ Finance Committee and then to the entire Board of Trustees. A negative vote from faculty could stop the process, as could a negative finding by any of the committees along the way.

“If approved by all parties, the timeline for the implementation of a new LMS still needs to be developed,” the posting continued. “Any assumption that faculty and students will be using a different LMS for fall 2008 is premature. Implementation will require more time than exists between the board vote and the start of fall classes.”

Read the faculty post here.

A few faculty members asked how the paper could publish these errors and who, if anyone, checks facts. I explained the editing process I helped establish during my tenure at The Ledger. A minimum of three editors check the story and the staff reviews the proofs, or “minis,” for errors on production night. Yet, I agreed the article’s factual errors also could serve as errors that influence.

“Maybe this calls for something more than running a correction in the next issue, perhaps a staff ed?” I wrote in an April 29 e-mail to the Ledger's adviser, editor in chief, and managing editor. “I know the situation sucks because everyone loves to point out when The Ledger makes a mistake. But if it's not addressed then the integrity of the paper suffers especially on the heels of some prestigious awards this year.”

The next day, six days after publishing the article, The Ledger posted a correction and apology on Infolist.

“It has come to the attention of The Campus Ledger that the April 24 article about the Blackboard Learning System contained incorrect information,” the post read. “It was not our intention to sway the vote for a new learning management system ... Our staff will take this experience to heart. We plan to continue providing the quality, accurate news that you have come to expect from our award-winning newspaper.”

Read The Ledger post here.

Seeing this as a teachable moment, I asked the Ledger's adviser, editor in chief, managing editor and the reporter how the situation unfolded.

Linda Friedel, managing editor, acknowledged ethics breach.

“We definitely consider it a learning moment,” Friedel said. “It is the worst mistake anyone has made on the Ledger this year.”

She said a meeting took place yet they could not identify the origin of the mistake.

“Either the reporter didn't make the question clear, the source spoke out of line, the source didn't communicate it was a done deal and the reporter thought it was a done deal,” she said.

Friedel said the most they could do was acknowledge the mistake and use it as an example of how not tor report.

Alexia Lang, editor in chief, did not respond to my question.

Anne Christiansen-Bullers, adviser, said she would meet with the reporter and Lang to discover how the errors happened.

The reporter, Bartholomew Klick, said a few days after The Ledger's apology posted, Lang abruptly fired him. He said she cited the errors along with an e-mail campaign he spearheaded against The Ledger for an unrelated story as reasons for his termination.

Yet, Klick contends he accurately reported the story. He said during the editing process, editors cut crucial information and left gaps they later filled with assumptions and other misinformation.

Klick provided his unedited copy showing the differences. His original lead reads:
“As quickly as autumn of this year, the college may have a new program for managing its online course material.”

The published version reads:

“Beginning this fall, the college will have a new program for managing its online course material.”

Read The Ledger article here.
Read Klick's original version here.

Klick said the only thing he regretted about the story was that he did not record and clearly document his interviews. Both he and Friedel agreed organized documentation would have identified errors and allowed corrections before publication.

Further complicating the situation is that everyone involved is an accomplished journalist. Klick and another staffer recently were awarded the college’s Robert J. Helmer award for excellence in journalism. Alexia Lang was named first runner up for the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press Journalist of the Year award in the two-year division. Friedel is a contributing columnist to The Kansas City Star’s Neighborhood News and Christian-Bullers has earned an advising award from the Collage Media Advisers association.

The faculty voted to endorse ANGEL Learning as it’s LMS. The recommendation now moves along the path to approval. Yet the question remains: did the reporting errors influence the vote?

Visit Regret the Error to read about media mistakes