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Public Editor: Sins of omission have consequences

Palestinians from the Gaza Strip celebrate the political unity deal in a demonstration at the Unknown Soldier square in Gaza City where for the first time since 2007 the yellow Fatah flag is allowed to be displayed on May 4, 2011.

MARCO LONGARI/MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

There were several problems with the main story on the front page of The Globe and Mail and on the home page of globeandmail.com this morning. The story by Patrick Martin, who is currently in the Middle East, looked at Palestinian reaction to Canada's opposition to a proposed enhanced recognition by the United Nations of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

The lead paragraph said a senior PLO official "is warning of 'consequences'" for any action against the Palestinian Authority. However, the key paragraphs that would have backed up that lead were edited out of the newspaper story for space reasons. Here are the omitted words:

Would the Palestinian Authority consider closing the Canadian representative's office in Ramallah, if Ottawa closes the Palestinian office? Ms. Ashrawi [PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi] was asked.

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"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," she replied. But if action is taken against the Palestinians, "there may be consequences," she insisted.

"If that happens, Canada will only have itself to blame."

Those paragraphs were included in the online version but, unfortunately, were not in the newspaper. Without that explanation, readers were mystified by the main print headline, which read: PLO warns Canada of reprisals.

There was no mention of reprisals (consequences would have been a better choice) in the story, and reprisals is too harsh a word in this context. In addition, the context of those missing words was not there.

The upshot was that to many readers our headline seemed to have been turned inside out; they quite reasonably thought we'd got mixed up and that we should have had a headline saying: Canada warns PLO of reprisals.

To add to the problem, an early headline on the online story also said the PLO warned of reprisals just for Canada voting "no" to the enhanced recognition. Clearly the suggestion from the PLO spokeswoman was that there may be consequences if Ottawa were to close the Palestinian office.

It is important to choose words carefully and to understand the difference between consequences and reprisals. It is also important when editing a story that the key paragraphs that back up the main point in the lead paragraph should be protected at all costs. If those two things had happened, there wouldn't be the confusion today.

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A clarification is running in Friday's newspaper on the headline. It will read: "In reply to a question, PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said there might be consequences to Canada if Canada takes action against the Palestinian Authority in connection with a resolution at the UN General Assembly. Incomplete information appeared in Thursday's print edition."

The headline on a Friday front page story unfortunately is also incorrect and will be corrected in tomorrow's paper. The headline said Why the Foreign Minister Opposes Palestinian Statehood.

That is an incorrect description of John Baird's position. The correction says:  A headline on Friday incorrectly stated that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird opposes Palestinian statehood. In fact, Mr. Baird opposed "observer state" status for Palestine at the United Nations. He and the federal government favour a Palestinian state achieved through negotiations with Israel.

If you want to comment, please send me an e-mail at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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