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Transparency in the editing process

April 30, 2010 |  1:08 pm

In his column in the April 24 Sports section, Bill Dwyre wrote about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who joined the Army after Sept. 11 and who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. Dwyre reflected on his coverage of the story over the six years since Tillman was killed and was critical of himself for not asking the tough questions about the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death. The column began:

I have never quite gotten the Pat Tillman story out of my system. Only now am I understanding why.

It has been six years and two days since he died, his head blown off amid a pile of rocks on the side of a hill in Afghanistan, killed by guys on his own team, other U.S. soldiers. After lying about it, the military eventually called it friendly fire and treated it as a mistake. Horrible, yes, they said. But a mistake.

However, in the piece Dwyre submitted to the Sports desk, he had written “murdered” instead of “killed” -- Tillman was “murdered by guys on his own team, other U.S. soldiers.”

A Sports copy editor working the story last Friday afternoon questioned the use of the word.

As The Times’ style guide states, “Murder is either a charge or a verdict, not a synonym for homicide. … Do not say that a victim was murdered until someone has been convicted of murder. Instead, say that a victim was killed or slain.”

Dwyre agreed that the wording should be changed to “killed,” and that’s how his column read when it appeared in Saturday’s print edition.

However, the column was edited earlier in the day by a morning copy desk editor and posted to the Web. The time stamp in the Web system shows it being sent at 5:47 p.m.; the Sports copy editor’s work -- with the editing change from "murdered" to "killed" -- was saved at 6:45 p.m.

When Dwyre discovered late that night that the column posted online read “murdered,” he contacted Assistant Sports Editor Dan Loumena, who changed the wording to reflect the print version.

Robert C.J. Parry, a soldier in Afghanistan, is one reader who came across the column during the five hours between its posting and Loumena’s change. He e-mailed a letter to the editor early Wednesday morning that took issue with use of the word “murdered”:

Pat Tillman was not “murdered.” He died because bad stuff happens in our business. The word "murdered” pounds ache into the hearts of  men who live every day knowing they killed someone who acted with willingness to die for them.

Call them reckless -- they may have been. But don't even hint that a kid who in the worst moment of his life got carried away with saving himself and his brothers is the moral equivalent of a thug who stabs a store clerk for a $20 crack hit.

Parry has a different objection to the word than the copy editor did, but his point is well taken. And if the edited version of the story had appeared online originally, there would have been no use of “murdered” to dispute.

However, it was posted that way. And when the change was made from “murdered” to “killed,” that should have been noted in a For the Record.

The Times’ correction policy states that articles published online before they appear in print can be changed, with a note attached to that online version explaining the error that was there previously.

A For the Record has now been added to the column.

-- Deirdre Edgar

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