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Public Editor: The danger of trying – and failing – to be clever in journalism

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

The Globe and Mail

On Friday afternoon, a failed attempt to be clever in a blurb on a Facebook posting sparked the wrath of many readers.

It was about an amazing survival story that showed the courage and resourcefulness of two men and a teenager lost in a blizzard on Baffin Island.

Nunavut MLA Pauloosie Keyootak, his son and nephew were lost for nine days in what Canadian Press reporter Bob Weber called "one of the most forbidding environments on Earth."

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In order to stay alive, Mr. Keyootak said he built an igloo with a small knife.

The headline on the story online and automatically for Facebook was "Nunavut MLA built igloo to stay alive while awaiting rescue on tundra."

Then a Globe editor who selects and posts stories to Facebook decided to write this blurb: "This is really going to make it hard to shed that stereotype."

Facebook readers responded with anger: "What stereotype? The fact that the man was self reliant?" and "That is not a stereotype. That is worthwhile knowledge."

A senior editor was alerted by another staff member, and the blurb was changed within 30 minutes to read: "It helped keep himself, his son and his nephew alive."

The Globe and Mail also apologized with a comment on the post saying: "Our earlier caption on this post was not acceptable. We sincerely apologize for it."

Kevin Siu, The Globe's head of digital, editorial explained the process: "Given their knowledge of the news and our values, social media editors write tweets and Facebook posts at their discretion. The editor who wrote the Facebook post says he intended it as a commentary on perceptions of living in the North. But it was plainly offensive. It was also irrelevant to the story. We apologize unconditionally. When we became aware of the post, we changed it immediately, with a note of apology.

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"We are reviewing our guidance around Facebook posts, as well as posting on other social media, as well as the checks we have in place to prevent inappropriate posts."

I agree that it is not only good to see what went wrong in this case, but also to assess the process.

And it is unfortunate that standards can be bruised in an instant. But that is the danger of such mistakes.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this article incorrectly said the two men and teenager were lost on Ellesmere Island. This has been corrected.

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