Beyond Jayson: It's little errors that hurt media
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.
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.' "
Mr. Rogers recalls a San Francisco Chronicle story from Afghanistan that referred to someone carrying a "300-millimeter pistol" - roughly the size, a reader pointed out, of a gun on a battleship. "A lot of us aren't very good about firearms or the metric system," he laughs.
Ian Mayes, readers' editor for the British newspaper the Guardian, has made something of a name for himself with his often humorous columns. A few of the paper's recent errors: One obituary said the deceased had chaired the Wildflower Association of Great Britain - instead of the Wildfowlers Association, a sport-shooting group. Another piece referred to the "moral satin of Clinton's career" - giving the sentence a considerably different meaning than "moral stain" would have. "You don't have to write them in any particular way," Mr. Mayes says of the corrections. "It's more a matter of sharing the minor embarrassment and laugh with the readers."
Still, editors and reporters both agree the issue of accuracy and its effect on readers' trust is a serious one - one reason the ASNE sponsored a lengthy study several years ago. The conclusion: Everything from a misused "affect" to a mislabeled map erodes public confidence.
But a willingness to quickly correct mistakes goes a long way toward restoring it.
The study also looked at factors that contribute to inaccuracy and how problems can be improved. A few are obvious. Deadline pressure at a paper can be enormous, and, as Rogers likes to point out to readers, the typical metro daily paper contains the same number of words as the average novel. Budgets are tight, and copy editors overworked.
But other errors come from carelessness, inexperience, or insufficient questioning and checking by editors. Some journalists criticize the rush to publish, which may emphasize getting a story out first rather than getting it right.
A newsroom culture that pressures reporters to produce also contributes to inaccuracy, says McBride. She encourages papers to do more error-prevention training, to more openly discuss policies about things like using unnamed sources, and to encourage a culture that allows for dissent.
Some newspapers have created checklists, covering the most frequently committed errors, for writers to keep by their computers.
McBride and others point to the Chicago Tribune as an example. The paper now requires employees to fill out error forms every time a mistake is committed, saying how it happened and what can be learned.
Customer service editor Margaret Holt scans the forms for patterns, and says that the policies have led to dramatic improvements.
Eliminating all errors would be unrealistic, she says. The point is eliminating the preventable errors. "We think there's nothing more important than being accurate."