Declaring War on Errors  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December/January 2008

Declaring War on Errors   

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech
By Craig Silverman
Union Square Press
370 pages; $19.95

Letters from the Editor:
Lessons on Journalism and Life
By William F. Woo
University of Missouri Press
216 pages; $19.95

Like excellence almost everywhere, good journalism draws on both the brain and the heart. These two books converge on that point from opposite directions.

"Regret the Error" is a compendium of published media corrections, many of them hilarious. But Craig Silverman, a journalist who founded the Web site RegretTheError.com, turns what could have been a sudsy little stocking stuffer into a serious study of why journalists fail so often. He also lays out a sensible, brain-driven plan for reform, starting with a "systems approach" to accuracy.

Silverman's Web site emerged after he read this oddly worded clarification in the July 4, 2004, edition of Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader: "It has come to the editor's attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission."

The more he looked, the more errors he saw. The well-fed Web site took off and the mother lode shows no signs of drying up. Silverman reprints scores of gems:

* "President George Washington's first name was misspelled in an editorial in Monday's @Issue section." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

* "We spelt Morecambe, the town in Lancashire, wrong again on page 2, G2, yesterday. We often do." (The Guardian)

* "Mr. Smith said in court, 'I am terribly sorry. I have a dull life and I suddenly wanted to break away.' He did not say, as we reported erroneously, 'I have a dull wife and I suddenly wanted to break away.' We apologise to Mr. Smith, and to Mrs. Smith." (Daily Mail)

While many errors are amusing, others carry steep consequences. Misprinted lottery numbers led a Canadian man to think he had won more than $43 million. Untold anguish has come from misidentifying individuals as mobsters or terrorists, confusing victims with suspects, or transposing names of the safe and the dead in disasters.

Applying research by psychologists, Silverman finds that most errors are "slips" (such as typos, mainly careless and preventable) but others are "mistakes" (such as poor reporting or false conclusions, harder to fix).

Various studies show that errors occur in up to 61 percent of all stories, far more than the media acknowledge. Silverman criticizes journalists for taking the "person approach," or blaming one individual, rather than the "systems approach," which also considers the workplace processes and cultures that contribute.

For credibility as much as principle, Silverman suggests, the media need more aggressive investments in accuracy. Among his useful ideas are better training in interviewing and note-taking; accuracy checklists and a 10-minute fact-checking period before reporters turn in copy; greater use of anti-plagiarism software; increased post-publication surveys of sources to monitor accuracy; and random fact-checking of one story from each section of every issue.

Given today's huge online attention to media errors, he suggests turning the gadflies into allies by offering rewards for readers and bloggers who detect errors.

Errors bothered veteran editor William Woo, too, but "Letters from the Editor" takes more of a humanistic than a systems approach.

Woo, who died last year, liked to call himself "the first editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch whose name was not Joseph Pulitzer." When he left newspapering to teach at Stanford, he adopted the charming practice of writing letters to his students. Covering topics such as "Knowing Enough" and "The Importance of a Second Look," they come across as heartfelt conversations with a slightly stodgy, very wise uncle.

His loyalty was to "a journalism that serves the public trust," and he believed that "the journalist in you arises from the person you are."

"[R]emember this," he writes. "Humanity is inseparable from everything else. Every piece of public policy has its human component. The more we are able to connect that human component with the policy be it taxes, defense, crime and punishment, whatever the more it will mean to our readers... How do we connect those things? By becoming wiser about life... By understanding the details and implications of policies... By reading the news daily..by becoming interested in documents and specialized writing..."

All this is difficult, he concedes, but journalists who succeed can become "artists of small perfection," scoring with "a sentence, a story, a reporter's moment of genius."

Together, these books offer a mini-curriculum, both instructive and inspirational, showing the limitless possibilities of discipline united with passion.

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@jmail.umd.edu), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

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