I think that the typical reader understands what it means when a newspaper runs a "correction." It means, "We messed up. We printed something that was inaccurate. Here is the correct information." A correction is what the leaders of the American Baptist Churches/USA requested at the start of this month, during that firestorm of coverage about the Southern Baptist mission workers from Idaho who were arrested in Haiti and accused of trying to rush 33 needy children over the border into the Dominican Republic.
The problem, of course, is that many journalists kept calling these mission workers "American Baptists." Thus, the leaders of the actual American Baptists sent out a letter that said, in part:
While the people involved are Baptists from the United States, they are not American Baptists, a title belonging to the churches who are part of the American Baptist Churches/USA based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Please correct this. ...
The Washington Post was one of the newsrooms that used the "American Baptist" label -- several times, in fact. For me, it was just as important that the newspaper called these short-mission workers "American Baptists" -- as in Baptists from America -- without then identifying that they came from Southern Baptist congregations that were, yes, in Idaho (far from the South, in other words). Anyone who knows anything about America's second largest religious body knows that the Southern Baptist Convention is now truly national.
Now, after nearly a month, the Post has printed the following:
A-section articles on Feb. 2 and Feb 5, about members of a U.S. Baptist group charged with kidnapping after they tried to leave Haiti with 33 children, referred to the group members as American Baptists. The group is associated with churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and is not part of American Baptist Churches USA.
Amen. Now, the only strange thing about this note is that the newspaper referred to this material as a "clarification," not a "correction." In other words, the Post team felt that it only needed to "clarify" its earlier errors, not "correct" them.
Here's a typical definition of the word in question:
v. clar*i*fied, clar*i*fy*ing, clar*i*fies ...
1. To make clear or easier to understand; elucidate: clarified her intentions. 2. To clear of confusion or uncertainty: clarify the mind.
So the information was not inaccurate, it was simply unclear. It wasn't wrong, it was merely hard to understand. The Post did not, in fact, make an error. So there.
Well, what is hard to understand? While it may have been unclear whether the newspaper was writing about "American Baptists" or "Baptists from America," the coverage kept denying readers the crucial fact that the mission workers were linked to Southern Baptist churches, but not, I would add, the actual foreign mission agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. That's crucial information.
OK, in newspaper terms, what's the difference between a "correction" and a "clarification"? What are journalists trying to say when this particular hair is split?