An unfortunate headline

Every day, the editorial staff at the UK wonders: what are we writing about, why are we writing about it, and how are we writing about it? Here’s a look behind the scenes.

When the Universiteitskrant was still printed on paper, our words were irreversible. Even before the ink had dried, mistakes could not be altered. The editorial staff could only correct these afterwards, in the next week’s issue.

In the online era, the rules have changed. Mistakes can be corrected in an instant, and a poorly formulated sentence or paragraph can be adjusted in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, we are reticent to do this too often. As set down in our Protocol Corrections and Amendments, changing or correcting an article after it has been published should only happen under special circumstances.

Most of the guidelines in the protocol are fairly straightforward. Whenever the editorial staff makes a demonstrable mistake, we obviously need to correct this quickly and without grumbling about it. But what if the mistake isn’t obvious? What if it’s a matter of taste, experience, feeling?

Last week, we had a case of the latter. The UK published an unusual story about teachers who are licensed to use their own bodies to train students of gynaecology learning to perform internal examinations. The idea behind this practice is that real-life experience provides better training, and will help students to see patients in a wholistic way.

Due to the sensitive and intimate nature of the subject, the women interviewed for the article were allowed to read the story before we published it, and they gave their blessing. However, they didn’t see the headline the editorial staff added to the story later.

This headline (which I can’t repeat without making the same mistake again, but which contained a reference to female genitalia) was a little coarse, although not journalistically wrong, per se.  Nevertheless, the subjects of the story were dismayed: they felt it was crude, in bad taste, and degrading. At their request, we changed the headline after we had already published the article.

Did we violate our own protocol? We don’t think so. We may not have made a factual error, but we did make an error in judgement. The headline failed to acknowledge the sensitive and intimate nature of this kind of teaching. It wasn’t our intention to offend or cause harm.

Rob Siebelink, editor-in-chief


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