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APME president urges editors to challenge stories for accuracy

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) -- In the wake of high-profile retractions by some of the nation's top news organizations, the president of the Associated Press Managing Editors association had some simple advice. "Edit more skeptically," Reid MacCluggage, editor and publisher of The Day in New London, Conn., told members at the group's annual meeting Thursday. He compared the process to the work of a prosecutor attacking the testimony of a witness. "If skeptics aren't built into the process right from the start, stories will slide onto Page One without the proper scrutiny," he said. "If stories hold up on the witness stand, under rigorous cross-examination by tough editors, they will hold up under any assault." During the past year, CNN has retracted a story televised and published jointly with Time magazine which said the U.S. military used nerve gas to go after defectors during the Vietnam War. The New Republic magazine and The Boston Globe acknowledged that their writers made up quotes and people. And The Cincinnati Enquirer retracted a story based on information allegedly stolen from a telephone message system. The newspaper apologized to Chiquita Brands International Inc. and agreed to pay more than $10 million to avert a lawsuit. "The Globe and the Enquirer are well-edited newspapers. Time and New Republic are well-established magazines with good reputations. CNN is a premier television network," MacCluggage said. "If standards broke down at those companies, they can break down anywhere. It's our job as editors to make sure they don't," he said. MacCluggage said inaccurate information sometimes gets into news reports because reporters and editors don't have time to verify the facts or are duped by sources. Often, however, reporters and editors become so involved in the story that they forget to be skeptical, MacCluggage said. Examples, he said, include widespread reporting two years ago of an epidemic of racially motivated arson attacks on black churches in the South. Detailed reporting by The Associated Press and USA Today showed there was little evidence the attacks were racially motivated, and that arson had occurred with equal frequency on white churches. One problem facing news organizations is that much of the editing process is left up to junior editors who may not stand up to aggressive reporters and look critically at their stories, MacCluggage said. Senior editors need to make sure they're not so involved in corporate duties that decisions on critical stories are left to others. MacCluggage called for training programs within the APME, journalism schools and other industry organizations to teach editors how to spot weaknesses in major stories. He said papers also should look for reporters and editors who bring a diversity of opinion and experience to the newsroom. The group discussed other topics, including how newspapers can make a profit by going online. Experts said successful Web sites must offer readers easy-to-reach information about restaurants, entertainment and services. Also speaking to editors was ABC television journalist Sam Donaldson, who said he expects President Clinton to resign if Congress finds that he committed crimes. Earlier Thursday, AP president and chief executive officer Louis D. Boccardi led a discussion among four Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographers about capturing a defining moment in history. The photographers were Eddie Adams, whose pictures of a South Vietnamese police colonel executing a man on the street won a Pulitzer in 1969; Jacqueline Artz-Larma, part of a team that won the prize in 1995 for coverage of the genocide in Rwanda and refugees in Zaire; Paul Vathis, who won the prize in 1962 for his photo of Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower walking together in the woods at Camp David, Md.; and Nick Ut, who in 1973 photographed a 9-year-old girl running naked from a napalm blast, then got her to a jeep for a ride to the hospital. That girl, Kim Phuc, made a surprise appearance and told the editors how the photo made her "another victim." When the South Vietnamese government found her and told the world, the flood of journalists made it impossible for her to continue school. She has since made her way to Toronto, campaigned to raise awareness of the effect of war on children and become a United Nations goodwill ambassador. "From that picture I learn I have to help children," she said.

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