A regrettable error, an over-the-top response

A regrettable error, an over-the-top response

The week after Christmas, Catholic World News* ran an article about an editorial in L’Osservatore that we originally translated as saying the Vatican was criticizing Israel for refusing to send aid to Sri Lanka after the tsunami, when in reality it was the exact opposite; Sri Lanka had refused an offer of Israeli aid. Immediately after we realized our mistake, we published a retraction and apology along with the corrected story.

However, a number of other news outlets had already run with our original, wrong story (rather than checking L’Osservatore Romano themselves) and thus the error was compounded. The reaction has been interesting. Some people who used our article without attribution (and are in the habit of doing so) got egg on their faces and criticized us for it. Other people, who already have an axe to grind against CWN, cited it as an example of unprofessionalism and a reason why we should be ignored as a journalistic enterprise. (See, because they never make mistakes.)

Then there are the kooks, like Elizabeth Behrman, “chairwoman” of the physics department at Wichita State University, who wrote an op-ed published in today’s Wichita Eagle in which she accuses CWN of intentionally fomenting hatred for Israel because of an anti-Semitic ideology.

So why had CWN reported the story backward? It could be that CWN had assigned someone to translate this story whose Italian was good enough to get most of the words but bad enough to have missed the entire point of the story. Alas, far more probable is that the responsible person at CWN felt that reporting the facts would obscure a larger “truth”: that Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, are essentially wicked people.

  • Everybody makes mistakes. Still, this isn’t the first time that CWNews has published something both critical and inaccurate about the Osservatore Romano. Over the summer an item appeared on “Off the record” that slammed the Osservatore Romano for being selective in its outrage in condemning the murder of a Korean hostage in Iraq but keeping silent about the murder of an American hostage. After I pointed out (on my now defunct blog) that the OR had only days earlier condemned the murder of the American in the strongest possible terms, the item simply vanished from CWNews’ website without any retraction, apology or even acknowledgment that it existed. This is not only contrary to standard blog etiquette, but more importantly (since Off the Record is more than just an ordinary blog) contrary to common journalistic ethics.

    I don’t mean to be snippy, but I wonder if an editorial bias against the OR is as much to blame for this recent blunder as a sloppy translator. Running stories that confirm an editorial bias without double-checking is, after all, what led to Rathergate. To CWNews’s credit, unlike CBS they corrected their mistake immediately; but since this isn’t the first time, I hope steps are taken to prevent it happening again.

  • There is no bias against OR. It is a first-rate newspaper and the official house organ of the Vatican. I’m not familiar with the previous example you cite, but what’s more likely is that the item simply scrolled of the page.

  • Hrrrm… just how easily mistakes are made is clear to me upon checking the cached Google article. I had assumed that the erroneous report was an attempt by CWNews to portray the OR as having an anti-Israel bias, but instead it appears to be a neutral news item. Sorry, guess my own biases got the better of me!

  • In order to make it clear that I don’t have an axe to grind against Catholic World News, let me say that I’ve raised questions about the journalistic practices of the many who rushed to condemn the Vatican on the basis of CWN’s mistranslation as well as raising questions about CWN’s own misstep. Since I’m on a CWN-related forum, Domenico, I, a Catholic, will only speak of those questions I’ve had about CWN’s role in this.

    First, the “About” page of CWN gives anyone who visits it the impression that Papal/Vatican developments constitute the central focus of its news reportage, enough so, that I would think that the daily availability of a dependable Italian translator would be mandatory.

    Second, it struck me as a bit irregular that, when CWN pulled the text of the original story, no explanation was given as to the reason for its removal (still true, by the way:  http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=34295) Nor was (and is) there any direct link to the correction. And when the story was initially pulled on 12/30, the old headline “L’Osservatore raps Israel for declining disaster relief” remained until 12/31. Furthermore, the comments to the original report were (and still are) permitted to stand without editorial comment, thereby only reenforcing the impression when the old headline was in place that CWN was still standing behind the account that L’Osservatore Romano had censured Israel. In other words, even though CWN pulled the text, every other detail on the page militated against reasonable discovery of the true facts.

    On 12/30, I did search for a correction on the home page and only located a discreet headline tucked deep down in the “New and Noteworthy” section, below the ad that sits under “Top Stories.” (Was the corrected account ever one of the “Top Stories”?) Although you say here in your blog that you were “by the end of the day [do you mean 12/29?] . . . deluged with people telling us we had gotten the story wrong,” you still did not spotlight a link to the correction. Would not a deluge have called for a correction box at the top of the home page?

    All of these questions prompted me last week to more carefully examine your past reports on Israel, and I regret to say that there does seem to me to be a detectable negative tone toward the government of Israel in CWN’s coverage. (To survey headlines, one can google:  site:www.cwnews.com “catholic world news” israel). More telling in regard to the Jewish community at large is the way CWN has at times referred to the Anti-Defamation League in a straight news report, enlisting the non-neutral term “Jewish Anti-Defamation League” for an organization that speaks in defense of more than just strictly Jewish interests. (For example, see “Jewish Anti-Defamation League to Monitor Pro-Life Websites,” http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=15789.)

    I am finding it difficult to not find some merit in Elizabeth Behrman’s intimations. However, I do think she grievously errs in not also asking why it is that so many were, to recast her op-ed title, rushing to hate the Pope. You at least have admitted that the “original error was a very bad one,” and I think it would do much good if the various media who censured L’Osservatore Romano on the basis of CWN’s initial report would issue apologies.

  • We do employ competent and dependable Italian translators and in fact we have several people who work for in Rome. As I said, because of a staff shortage due to the Christmas holiday we had a less than competent translation.

    All other speculation about CWN’s attitude toward Israel is bunk. Let me assure, we do not have an axe to grind against Jews and Israel. Our coverage may not be unalloyed in praise of Israel as some conservative news organizations are, but that’s called objectivity and balance.

    I would not work for any organization that was anti-Jewish in any way. Let me tell you why: Because my grandfather was Jewish and I would never insult him in that way.

    I use the term “Jewish Anti-Defamation League” to distinguish it from other groups who call themselves an Anti-Defamation League and let’s not kid ourselves, the ADL speaks 99 percent of the time about Jewish interests and there’s nothing wrong with that. Why is it non-neutral to identify their interests? If they were Catholic, I’d call them Catholic.

    The first link above says that the story has been removed from public view. Unfortunately, that’s the best that can be done given the limitations of our current computer system (I won’t get into the details; we may have to address that limitation in the future).  But the only way to get to that link is to have the original URL. You can’t search for it on our site. It’s the sad reality of the Internet that nothing is ever truly erased and your mistakes live forever, usually in Google’s cache.

    As for the Sound Off comments, you’re right they can be removed and I will remove, but since people can’t access them unless they have the link to the original story already, it’s not like everyone can see them. But they’re being removed now.

    I can’t speak to why the headline wasn’t prominent when you saw it. As new stories come in the older ones get pushed down the line. I was headed off to my own vacation about the time you’re talking about and didn’t have a firsthand look at that part of the problem.

    You’re just going to have to believe me that the simplest explanation is the correct: Someone screwed up the translation badly. Honestly, it can happen. I’ve done it myself. Sometimes you get to a point when you just don’t know what it is you’re writing. At that point you should just quit and ask someone else for help. This translator didn’t. Simple as that.

    We screwed up, we admitted out mistake, we fixed it. End of story. But some people will never be satisfied.

  • Who woke Elizabeth Berhman up?  This is stale news, opinion, etc.

    For about 20 hours, 330 hours ago—CWN had a mistranslated story on its site.  For about 10 hours it was removed from the site and then a retraction and explanation appeared in its place As a CWN reader, I mailed to the editor a link to another blog which took notice that the online Italian text (which became available only that morning) was not correctly translated by CWN.

    How many other errors have appeared in the media, discovered and retracted since December 30, 2004?

    At any rate Berhman got the double-spin wrong.  “Alas, far more probable is that the responsible person at CWN felt that reporting the facts would obscure a larger “truth”: that Jews in general, and Israelis in particular, are essentially wicked people.”

    (1) CWN was (incorrectly) documenting that LOR was accusing the Israelis here.

    (2) LOR had accused the Israeli’s of promoting terrorism by erecting a security barrier, delaying without good cause agreements with religious orders in Israel, etc. so such an accusation of “wicked Israel” (Berhman’s label) would only be in accord with their prior editorial positions.

    What CWN got wrong was not the position of the Israelis, but the position of LOR – LOR in this instance critical of Sri Lanka and not Israel.

    Who made Berhman a mind-reader to state what the motives of the CWN reporter was? How could a deliberate translation error survive more that a few hours? 

    postscript:  from adl.org : “The immediate object of the League is to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience and, if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people”  so it’s not incorrect to identify them as a the Jewish Anti-Defamation League—although in my blog I identify them as the Pope Pius XII Defamation League.

  • Those who think that CWN was part of some sinister conspiracy to make Israel look bad ought to consider that the facts would equally support a conclusion that CWN was part of a sinister conspiracy to make *L’Osservatore Romano* look bad.

    In fact, I have to conclude that the grudging, half-hearted apologies offered by many who relied on the initial, incorrect report may be an indication that what they are most sorry about, to paraphrase Dr. Behrman, is that “reporting the facts would obscure a larger ‘truth’: that [Vatican officials] in general, and [L’Osservatore Romano editors] in particular, are essentially wicked people.”  How else am I to interpret, e.g., one blogger’s rationalization that “it speaks volumes about the Vatican’s Euro-trash, espresso-sipping worldview that so many of us found the ‘mistranslated’ news story so easy to believe”?  Talk about blaming the victim.  That’s as ugly as it would have been for L’Osservatore Romano (assuming for a moment that it *had* falsely reported that Israel had refused to help the victims) to have excused itself by saying that “it speaks volumes about Israel’s self-centered matzo-chomping worldview that so many of us found the inaccurate initial report so easy to believe.”