Politicians are quick to claim that they have been misquoted, or quoted out of context, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. It is generally a poor excuse, but journalists do well to correct errors promptly and readily.

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

A COUPLE of weeks ago, a reporter asked me to comment on the frequency with which political leaders were claiming they were misquoted in the media. She misquoted me.

Or did she? The inane sentence she quoted me saying was hidden somewhere in my convoluted answer. She didn’t make it up. It just made little sense without the long sentence before it and the long one after it.

Now I can make the excuse de jour when one sounds foolish: I was misquoted. Or, if that does not work because the pesky reporter had a tape recorder, I could try that other refuge of the sound-bite scoundrels: I was quoted out of context.

We hear these phrases with increasing frequency. Is it that journalists are getting it wrong more often, or has this just become easier than a straightforward apology?

If a politician mouths “I was quoted out of context”, I hear: “That was a stupid thing I said and I wish I could retract it gracefully. But I don’t have the guts or honour, and so I am going to blame the journalist.”

Hillary Clinton came up with a novel approach. When she caused an outcry by distastefully invoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy in explaining why she still had a hope of winning the presidential race, she said she had “mis-spoken”. People were so puzzled working out what that could mean, they forgot to vote for her.

Sometimes the politician’s excuse just does not fly. It does not matter in what context one says one would kill for Jacob Zuma. In any context, it is a startling thing to say. Or when Gwede Mantashe says he did not call our judges counter-revolutionary, we don’t quite believe him because the phrase and the sentiment rang true. It fitted with his argument and did not feel as if it was a phrase conjured up by the reporter.

IT HAS become commonplace to blame falling standards in journalism or the juniorisation of our newsrooms. This is based on a romantic notion of a great age of journalism when newspapers got things right and were less prone to tabloidism. I know of no such age. Newspaper errors have always existed, providing politicians with the opportunity to blame the media.

If errors are painful, the corrections are often hilarious. Try this one: “Following the portrait of Tony and Cherie Blair published on April 21 in the Independent Saturday magazine, Ms Blair’s representatives have told us that she was friendly with but never had a relationship with Carole Caplin of the type suggested in the article. They want to make it clear, which we are happy to do, that Ms Blair has never shared a shower with Ms Caplin, was not introduced to spirit guides or primal wrestling by Ms Caplin (or anyone else), and did not have her diary masterminded by Ms Caplin.”

That was last year’s correction of the year on a site called regrettheerror.com, dedicated to recording journalists’ most embarrassing moments. It should have won political report of the year.

The Newseum in Washington, a museum of the history of news, has decorated its bathrooms with great newspaper flubs, as they call them. Here’s one: “Last Sunday. The (Miami) Herald erroneously reported that original Dolphin Johnny Holmes had been an insurance salesman in Raleigh, NC, that he had won the New York lottery in 1982 and lost the money in a land swindle, that he had been charged with vehicular homicide but acquitted because his mother said she drove the car, and that he stated that the funniest thing he ever saw was Flipper spouting water on George Wilson. Each of these items was erroneous material published inadvertently. He was not an insurance salesman in Raleigh, did not win the lottery, neither he nor his mother was charged or involved in any way with vehicular homicide, and he made no comment about Flipper or George Wilson. The Herald regrets the error.”

As we tell our students: To err is human, to correct is divine.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 23 July 2008.