Thursday, January 07, 2010

Finnish paper criticizes Maclean's for not retracting "howler" about war deaths

Maclean's magazine has been criticized by a Finnish newspaper for not retracting, in print and online, a "howler of impressive proportions".  Maclean's editor Mark Stevenson says that running a letter to the editor about the error was sufficient.

It ran an article in the May 21 issue last year about whether the only permanent Lenin museum in the world, in the Finnish city of Tampere, should be required to showcase the crimes of the Soviet regime. The story included (and still includes online) the following sentence (relevant section boldfaced):
The debate has dragged in Finland’s minister of culture and sport, Stefan Wallin. He recently told the Helsinki newspaper Helsingin Sanomat that the support given to the museum shouldn’t be perceived as approval for Lenin’s totalitarian administration (about 10 million Finns died under Lenin, almost half due to starvation).
A couple of comments pointed out that the claim was wrong, since Finland even now only has 5 million citizens and had even fewer then. This week, the Finnish paper Helsingin Sanomat, prompted by a Canadian reader, took up the story.
This does raise the intriguing question of where Lenin - who did not actually ever rule Finland in any case, since the country declared independence in 1917 - managed to find all these Finns to kill or starve to death.
Our reader, a professor at a Canadian university, nevertheless writes to say that Maclean's has refused to run a retraction. She can only offer the reason that the magazine thinks individual readers or Finland are not sufficiently important to warrant getting it right. Until they do get around to changing the story, you can...marvel at just how Lenin could have pulled off the feat of exterminating us three times over, and speculate on whom it is who is living here now...
We asked for a comment from the magazine and editor Mark Stevenson replied that the magazine ran a letter about the story in its June 8 letters to the editor page and added:
When we've run a letter that points out an error we don't then typically run another correction.
(The letter said, in part, "The writer must have mixed up Finland with Ukraine, where some six to 10 million were starved to death in the 1930s. Finland's population was less than four million at the end of the Second World War, when Russia attacked Finland on Nov. 30, 1939.")


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The letter needs a correction, too, since Nov 30, 1939 was not "the end of the Second World War."

3:32 pm  
Blogger D. B. Scott said...

That letter's syntax is clunky and unclear, but I think it is clear the date is when Russia invaded Finland.

3:37 pm  
Blogger Just the facts, please said...

As the Washington Post and other serious media outlets clearly state in regard to correction policy:

“Letters to the editor are not a substitute for corrections by the editors”.

"A reader’s letter to the editor is not a substitution for a correction".

Likewise, the letter in Maclean's, which included family history and opinion, was not a correction - particularly for an error of such magnitude. Maclean's regularly ridicules other publications for the quality of retractions and corrections they offer in ADDITION to letters when an error is spotted. They should be held to the same standard. A letter is a reader's opinion. Errors of fact should lbe retracted by the editors. Mr. Stevenson's comment about a letter being sufficient is insufficient.

3:37 pm  
Blogger otyikondo said...

This seems to have been festering for quite some time. A comment to the mag in September 2009 contained the following, suggesting some customer frustration:

The editorial cites MacLeans sense of “responsibility to its readers” – a responsibility, first and foremost, to get facts right, and avoid fabrication. But a few months ago, spectacular errors were pointed out, with no correction or acknowledgement from editors, despite requests. MacLeans claimed that “about 10 million Finns died under Lenin, almost half due to starvation”.

Finland’s population of 5 million was smaller during Lenin's time (about 3 million). 10 million of them could not have died. Nor would any have died under Lenin, who never ruled Finland (Finland was independent in 1917 when Lenin arrived in Russia). The article may be confusing Finland with the Ukraine, where, some estimates suggest, casualties from the “Holodomor” (starvation under forced collectivization) ranged from 2.6 million to 10 million. But this event occurred decades later, under Stalin, not Lenin, who was then dead.

Not only does MacLeans have the wrong country, but apparently the wrong leader and wrong time period.

An error of this magnitude requires a correction, and an acknowledgement from the editors who signed off on it. When and if editors acknowledge errors like this, we might trust that MacLeans takes seriously its “responsibility to readers”, and deserves the freedoms it claims.

7:01 pm  
Blogger Just the facts, please said...

Here’s how the Globe handled a much smaller error:

A formal retraction appended to the article to set the record straight. This was not good enough for Maclean’s Paul Wells, who wrote that the Blatchford retraction didn’t go far enough.

Maclean’s has also refused to address in any form (letters or corrections) the other errors here:

8:59 pm  

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