Finding the funny side of correction

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When newspapers write corrections, they typically don't give them punch lines. But at the Guardian in London, Readers' Editor Ian Mayes often does:

"In our magazine, The Editor, page 3, February 11, we referred to the Six nations rugby [union] tournament in which we said 'Wales thrashed France' - a possibly partisan way of interpreting the actual result: Wales 3, France 36."

Mr. Mayes is the first ombudsman - a person who acts on behalf of readers - in the paper's 179-year history. Through daily corrections and in his weekly "Open Door" column, Mayes tries to square reader concerns with the newspaper's mission - a significant task in a country where tabloids are plentiful and journalists aren't generally well-liked.

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Mayes is perhaps the first at any British paper to bring so much wit to the job.

"From the beginning, I could see that a lot of the corrections that we have to make really come out very funny, and I didn't see why I should sort of keep it to myself," says Mayes, who has held the position since 1997.

It's obvious that he can't help himself sometimes: "A caption in Guardian Weekend, page 102, 13 November, read, 'Binch of crappy travel mags.' That should, of course, have been 'bunch.' But more to the point it should not have been there at all. It was a dummy [placeholder] which we failed to replace with the real caption. It was not meant to be a comment on perfectly good travel brochures. Apologies."

Mayes, a journalist for nearly 44 years, says the funny corrections help bring attention to the more serious ones, which he does not intend to undermine with those that are lighter. He is candid about his role as journalistic constable: "I haven't felt it's my job to spare the newspaper any embarrassment."

As with ombudsmen in the US, he is independent from the newsroom. He cannot be fired and has carte blanche to critique the paper, according to its editor, Alan Rusbridger.

"On every level, it's been brilliant," says Mr. Rusbridger. "The only thing that surprises me is that every paper hasn't taken it up."

Mayes says the corrections column is popular with readers and is for their benefit. "But I hope it's also being read by the journalists in the paper," he notes, "because a lot of it is actually quite as much, if not more, aimed at them."

Though Mayes usually doesn't name names in his corrections, he doesn't pull any punches, either: "We spelt Morecambe, the town in Lancashire, wrong on Page 2, G2, yesterday. We often do."

On Saturdays, Mayes's column addresses issues of reader concern, including the misuse of grammar, a problem many ombudsmen hear about and one Mayes says more people contact him about "than absolutely everything else."

Since 1997, Mayes has fielded about 17,000 e-mails, phone calls, letters, and faxes from the paper's roughly 400,000 readers, and has printed more than 3,000 corrections - which used to appear only occasionally "at the scene of the crime" of major errors, and not in a column on the editorial page as they do now.

In Britain, libel laws are stricter than in the US, according to Mayes, who says the number of complaints that required action by the paper's lawyers was reduced by a third in his first year.

Still, that doesn't mean Mayes can relax. On Nov. 6 of last year, he wrote in his column: "As I complete two years as the Readers' Editor, the internal ombudsman of the Guardian, the question I am most frequently asked is: 'Do you think you have made the slightest bit of difference, particularly in the general level of accuracy?'

"Well, no."

Though not all ombudsmen write corrections, Mayes does share the common role of trying to educate readers about how papers operate.

In that same column, he wrote, "All newspapers make mistakes. Everyone who writes for a newspaper (myself included) makes mistakes from time to time. The most conscientious journalist makes mistakes."

Sitting in his small office surrounded by reference books and a copy of the "Code of Practice" for British magazines and newspapers, he says, "When you look at the bulk of what we produce during the week - there are more words there than there are in 'War and Peace' or 'Don Quixote.' Considering the speed with which it's all put together, it is not surprising that mistakes are made.

"I think, and some of the American ombudsmen have said this, that it's an educational process, where you're saying to readers, 'Look, this is what a newspaper is. You can't have a perfectly finished product and still get the kind of news and content we provide and deliver so quickly.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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