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Beyond Jayson: It's little errors that hurt media

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2003

If you rely on The Christian Science Monitor for all your news, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mark Warner is the governor of New Mexico, or that Missouri's state budget deficit is $18 billion - the same size as its whole budget - instead of $323 million.

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It's not that the Monitor has any grudge against Bill Richardson, New Mexico's actual governor, or a desire to exaggerate the woes of the "Show me" state. Those are simply two of the more egregious errors that have run - and later been corrected - in recent issues of this paper.

The public is fixated on Jayson Blair, the young reporter for The New York Times who hoodwinked his readers and editors with willful plagiarism, lies, and made-up sources, but a much less sinister occurrence undermines the credibility of most newspapers every day: the unintentional errors, large and small, that make their way into each issue.

If the scandals involving Mr. Blair and past counterparts are like attacks by a ravenous lion, those little everyday errors are like "being nibbled to death by ducks," says Dick Rogers, readers' representative at The San Francisco Chronicle. They're not as sensational, but may in the long run do more damage.

How is it that a profession that prides itself on being in the truth business so often gets the facts wrong? There are few reporters who haven't lain awake at night worrying over a certain date or statistic in the story they just filed. Yet human error, combined with tight deadlines and the massive amount of copy that passes through a newsroom each day, means that most newspapers are riddled with errors.

Especially nagging are those mistakes that hit closest to home - seeing Grandma's name wrong in her obituary, for instance. "That has a more profound impact ... as to whether the paper is seen as being fair and accurate than some big national case," says Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). "It's personal."

Basic grammatical mistakes are enough to make readers cluck about a "loosening of standards" or ask what happened to proofreading. But many familiar with journalism's checkered past say papers are generally doing much better - especially when it comes to owning up to their mistakes. "The trend is definitely toward more accuracy," says Kelly McBride, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute. "Most newsrooms are recognizing their own arrogance when it comes to inaccuracy, and most are rewriting policies regarding corrections." Ms. McBride distinguishes between accuracy with a "little a" - grammar, spelling, and facts - and that with a "big A" - whether a story captured the spirit of a community or the context of a remark. Both, in her view, are improving.

The New York Times was the first newspaper in America to devote the same chunk of space each day to corrections - and it still stands out for its sometimes comical diligence in rectifying botched facts, no matter how small. In fact, the Times recently published a book of its past corrections, "Kill Duck Before Serving: Red Faces at The New York Times." A typical entry, from 1990, reads: "A caption ... with an article about the National Bank mistranslated the Arabic script of the bank symbol. It says, 'National Bank of Kuwait,' not 'There is no god but Allah.' "