Nobody likes making mistakes; but for journalists, the consequences can be nothing short of catastrophe, ranging from mild ribbing in the newsroom to outright mockery at the local watering hole – not to mention other consequences, of course, such as innocent people having their good names tarnished and such.
In any event, mistakes are things that most editors try to avoid. Still, they happen, and when they do, newspapers are quick to publish corrections.
Are not 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 located 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 demonstrates [ sic ] how much better user generated news is at unearthing errors rather than burying them. "
Appropriately proponents of "user generated news" do not consider errors of grammar and spelling worthy of being "unearthed."
Still, the results of the study are unnerving – even if there is some concern about the methodology of the study: having sources rate the accuracy of reports. We've all witnessed too many sources on a Bible that they never said what a news outlet reported they said, despite the evidence of tape recorders and videos.
Regardless of that, the fact is, we make too many mistakes, and often are not vigilant enough about correcting them.
Corrections need not be painful
There is no reason why corrections have to be grudging and boring. Craig Silverman is a well-respected journalist and author based in Montreal (a fellow Canadian, I'm pleased to say). His Regret the Error site is an exhaustive record of daily newspaper corrections. It's educational (no, not really) and intense fun (definitely).
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.
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 honor 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 who corrects 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 humor as possible. The amount of effort you put into the word 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.