Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 8, 2013

Seeing errors of our ways is important


CNHI

It has become an annual custom to devote my first column of the year to informing our readers about how badly we screwed up over the previous 12 months.

Last January’s column about the corrections The Daily Star ran caused just a bit of a stir in national journalistic circles when it caught the attention of Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute.

Its mission statement says the “Poynter Institute is a school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders. It promotes excellence and integrity in the practice of craft and in the practical leadership of successful businesses …”

“I’m happy to report that The Daily Star of Oneonta, New York released its numbers Saturday in a column from editor Sam Pollak,” Silverman wrote. “He said the paper published 116 corrections last year — a figure Pollak said bothers him, “but not for the reasons one might think.

“It’s too low.

“In 2010, we ran 178 corrections. In 2009: 187; in 2008: 174; and in 2007: 176. That’s an average of 178.75 over those four years. Why, then, was last year’s number so small in comparison?”

Silverman wrote: “Pollak is right to be alarmed rather than pleased by a drop in corrections. Corrections are a sign of a healthy, accountable news organization. We know journalists make mistakes, so the goal is to correct as many of them as possible. Not publishing corrections means you aren’t discovering and/or admitting your errors. Of course, fewer errors is a very good thing; but it’s not necessarily the same for corrections.”

Silverman pointed out a staggering figure I hadn’t known, stemming from research in 2007 by Scott R. Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

Employing statistics from 10 metropolitan newspapers, involving 1,220 news articles, Maier determined a staggering 2,615 factual errors were made, more than two per article on average. The truly scary thing is that corrections were published in only 23 of those stories — less than 2 percent.

What’s more, while most of the errors were minor, only four corrections eventuated from 130 requests from sources.

That same year, 2007, Clark Hoyt, who was public editor of The New York Times, bemoaned the “ferocious rate” at which his newspaper misspelled names, including “astonishingly and repeatedly, Sulzberger, the name of the family that owns The New York Times.”

I feel the Times should be congratulated for actively pursuing corrections. But if that 2 percent figure about uncorrected mistakes was correct, then those 10 metropolitan papers had a real problem, and so do the rest of us in this business if we think we’re accounting for every boo-boo.

Here at The Daily Star, we are probably running corrections on only a small fraction of what we’ve erred upon, but not through lack of effort. I don’t know of any instances in which we have been informed that we made a factual error and didn’t run a correction.

Most of the corrections and clarifications we ran concerned wrong dates for events or misspelled names, with the fault split fairly evenly among incorrect information provided to us, writers’ errors and those made by editors and copy editors.

A couple, in particular, stand out.

On July 14, we ran a correction about a picture on Page 1 the previous day of some cows to go along with a story about dairy farming. The trouble was — as several readers here in dairy country pointed out — the photo was of a herd of beef cows.

On Dec. 7, our correction referred to an article on Page 2 the day before that said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was in Cooperstown. Now, Cooperstown has a wonderful hall of fame, but it’s a shrine to baseball, not music. The Rock and Roll hall is in Cleveland.

If I was disappointed in our 2011 figure of 116 corrections, I’m less content that we ran 107 in 2012. Surely, we are making more errors than we’re correcting. We endeavor to account for all of them, but we need the help of our readers and sources for stories. If we mess up, please pick up the phone or email us and let us know.

Silverman, in his Poynter piece, also quoted this paragraph from my column last year.

“As for the 2011 corrections, I still don’t know why there were so few. Editors worry about things like that. Truth be known, we worry a lot … about everything.”

“Sounds like Pollak is a bit of the worrying type,” wrote Silverman, “which is a good thing.”

Too much of a good thing, including worrying, isn’t good. While we hope to cut down on mistakes, I’ll worry a lot less if we correct that low correction tally next year.

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Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star in Oneonta, N.Y. Contact him at spollak@thedailystar.com.