The correction on Korsha Wilson’s July 23 Washington Post feature about black families trying to hold onto their forebears’ farmland is gruesome. It’s 579 words long, a little more than a fifth of the length of the revised article. It has 15 bullet points. In print, it’s so long it has to jump from the first page of the Food section to the fourth.
“A previous version of this article contained many errors and omitted context and allegations important to understanding two families’ stories,” the correction reads. Among them: Wilson’s article misspelled the first name of a source’s grandfather, credited him with the wrong number of children with his second wife, misstated the number of acres sold in a partition sale, misquoted a source, “omitted key details that affect understanding of ownership of the land,” and on and on.
Wilson is a freelancer who’s had bylines in the New York Times and many food publications, including Bon Appétit, Saveur, and Food & Wine. She hosts a podcast called A Hungry Society. In February, she wrote a much-talked-about piece in Eater about how the character of much mainstream food criticism is still too white and male. In March, she spoke at SXSW as part of a panel discussion about how food can help “make a more inclusive world.”
Accomplished writer and communicator. Top-notch newspaper staff. So how did this bloodbath of a correction happen? Wilson, whose generally fascinating Twitter feed includes no mention of this story except for a thank-you to its editor, has not yet replied to a request for comment. I requested an interview with the Post‘s Joe Yonan, who edited the story, and in return received a statement from the Post‘s PR department. It’s credited to Post executive editor Martin Baron, who says: “We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”
Asked whether this means the Post won’t make Yonan available for comment, a spokesperson replied, “Yes, that is all we have to share.” In response to a follow-up email, the Post sent the text of the correction.
The correction is certainly thorough with regard to the article’s content. What it doesn’t answer, however, is any questions about the process this article went through and whether it was representative of how the Post handles contributions from freelancers whose training and propensity with regard to accuracy can be difficult to judge.
Here are a few questions from my list: Did Wilson pitch the story to the Post or did the paper assign it to her? How many staffers contributed to reporting the correction, and how much of their time did it take up? The note above the article says staff writer Tim Carman contributed reporting to the correction—did Yonan and Wilson contribute to re-reporting as well? What’s the Post’s fact-checking process for freelancers like? Why does the print version of the correction note that Wilson is a freelance writer but the online version doesn’t? How clean was Wilson’s draft? How much work did Yonan have to put in to the piece to ready it for publication? Were the errors hers or did any get introduced in the editing process? How and when did the Post learn that the story had so many problems? Who decided the correction needed to run on the front page of the Food section? Are there any legal dimensions to the correction? Would the Post work with Wilson again? Will this story occasion any changes to the Post’s process for working with freelancers? To Wilson, I would ask most of those same questions and add: Do you believe the Post treated you fairly?
These questions speak to the integrity of the paper’s editing process, so it’s surprising the Post doesn’t welcome them. When the Post 86’d its ombudsman position in 2013, then-publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote, “We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers.” But while the Post is happy to make its journalists available for coverage of things it does well (which is lots of things these days), it rations their availability when it screws up.