Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Sorry about that, chief: Dealing with errata in print and online

Nobody likes making mistakes; but for journalists, the consequences can range from mild ribbing in the newsroom to outright mockery at the local watering hole — not to mention innocent people having their good names tarnished and such.

In any event, mistakes are things that most editors try to avoid. Still, mistakes happen, and when they do, newspapers are pretty quick to publish corrections.

Aren’t they?

Not so much, according to “Accuracy Matters: A Cross-Market Assessment of Newspaper Error and Credibility” (Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, autumn 2005). The study, conducted by Scott R. Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, surveyed 4,800 news sources to find out how accurately their information had been reported. The rate of inaccuracy ran from 55 to 70 percent and included factual errors, misquotations, and absence of essential information. Of these errors, a whopping 98% went uncorrected.

Proponents of on-line news reporting, of course, gleefully seized upon the report. “So, this really puts into light the age old question…’how do you verify all of the content citizen journalists send in,’” gloated Leonard Brody of NowPublic.com, who went on to say, “Worse off [sic], it demostrates [sic] how much better user generated news is at unearthing errors rather than burying them.”

Apparently, “user generated news” doesn’t consider errors of grammar and spelling worthy of being “unearthed.”

Still, the results of the study are unnerving — even if I do have some qualms about judging the accuracy of news reports by relying on the complaints of the sources. I’ve just seen too many sources swear on a Bible that he or she never said such a thing, despite the evidence of tape recorders and videos.

Regardless of that, the fact is, we make too many mistakes, and often aren’t vigilant enough about correcting them.

Craig Silverman is a well-respected journalist and author based in Montreal. His Regret the Error site is an exhaustive record of daily newspaper corrections. It’s educational and enormous fun.

The Times: In a story in yesterday’s Times on the Trenton Softball Hall of Fame, Harvey Hyman was referred to as the “late” Harvey Hyman. Mr. Hyman is alive and well. The Times apologizes for the error.

Craig Silverman — or Data’s brother, Lore. Your choice

As Silverberg knows, a good correction can go far in mitigating even the worst mistakes, and to that end he has introduced the Ian Mayes Award for Writing Wrong, in honour of Ian Mayes, whom Silverberg calls “one of the, if not the, premier corrections artistes.”

“Using very few words, he often turned a simple correction into something amusing or enlightening. In the process, he made the paper’s corrections more than just a recitation of error.”

Here’s a sample of Mayes’ work:

In a misplaced outbreak of politeness, the Weatherwatch column, page 39, November 1, described average temperatures in Tromso and Bergen as being “0C and 3C respectfully”.

This year’s winner is David Hummerston of the West Australian whose corrections include this masterpiece of punnery:

Birdbrains: We swiftly swallowed the information supplied to us which described a photo of a bird in flight as a Rottnest Island Sparrow (The science of fine photography, page 19, August 16). As any eagle-eyed ornithologist would attest it was, of course, the much less rare Welcome Sparrow.

So there’s tip number one: When you make a mistake (and you will), confess it promptly and with as much humour as possible. The amount of effort you put into the wording will be worth much more to the offended party than the fact of the correction itself.

Plus it gives you a shot at the Ian Mayes Award, and it’s always fun to be rewarded for screwing up.

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This entry was posted on May 10, 2009 by in Journalism Topics and tagged , , , , , , .

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To the right are a few of the noteworthy interviews I've conducted.

Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin

Maeve Binchy

Maeve Binchy

Astronaut James Lovell

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