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Apology doesn't address root cause of Chronicle Herald's mishandled refugee story

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Chronicle Herald publisher Sarah Dennis was contrite. Under the headline, "We Have Listened And Will Learn From This," she wrote about her newspaper's mishandling of the infamously viral story that "should not have been released."

She seemed forthright: "apologize," "failure of foresight," "acknowledge our mistakes," "accept and try to learn from criticism..."

But nowhere in her 659-word mea culpa Friday did Dennis admit the root cause of those abysmal failures: the fact her newspaper's 60 professional journalists have been walking picket lines for 87 days-and-counting instead of reporting, writing, editing and saving their publisher from stories for which she has no choice but to grovel.

Sarah Dennis had no choice.

Late on Friday, April 8, the newspaper posted an un-bylined, anonymously sourced, un-researched, un-vetted story about un-named elementary school "refugee students... choking, pushing, slapping and verbally abusing" fellow students while yelling, "Muslims rule the world!"

Unsurprisingly, that hateful story got swallowed up whole by the haters and regurgitated around the world as fact.

The Herald belatedly tried to walk their mess back -- deleting sentences, then the whole story, apologizing -- but the damage is done.

Two of the paper's long-time columnists -- Chad Lucas, who hadn't written during the strike, and Lezlie Lowe, who had -- publicly resigned. If you believe social media, many subscribers who'd held their noses and onto their newspapers during the strike's first 11 weeks finally canceled them last week.

In professional newsrooms, skeptical editors look for logic holes in the stories even experienced reporters pitch. Is this really a story? They demand to know why sources want anonymity, and must OK their inclusion. If a story is confusing, incomplete or skewed, editors send it back for additional work. Controversial stories almost always get a second -- sometimes third, fourth -- look by more senior editors.

It appears none of that happened at the Herald. The paper's few remaining professional newsroom managers can't help but be over-worked, overwhelmed. The non-newsroom fill-ins lack the experience to even understand how badly they're screwing up.

It will get worse, unless...

If Sarah Dennis truly wants to learn from what's happened, she needs to pick up the phone, call the union and begin meaningful negotiations.

Otherwise, she won't have a paper to apologize for much longer.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Binuri Ranasinghe/flickr

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