New: Correct This: Journalistic Mistakes in an Age of Corrections

By Ted Friedman
Thursday June 07, 2012 - 03:57:00 PM
"To err is human, to forgive divine"--Alexander Pope.
Ted Friedman
"To err is human, to forgive divine"--Alexander Pope.

The New York Times, possibly the best edited rag in the world averages nearly 3,000 errors a year, based on multiplying the average number of daily errors they admit by days in the year, although this will probably call for a correction, or as my editor at the Berkeley Daily Planet calls corrections, "quibbles." 

In fact, the Times' corrections often seem like quibbles, except when they take a major pratfall, as they did April 28 when they misstated the cause of death as forced drinking in a fraternity hazing incident. The cause of death in the case had not been determined. 

This reminds me of my latest gaff in my Planet piece published Friday, which said, without qualification or attribution, that Police Chief Michael K. (or is it M.?) Meehan now speaks only through an attorney. I learned of my mistake from the chief, who spoke to me directly and without an attorney. 

I think he said, he didn't even have an attorney, but am not sure. His departmental spokesperson has an attorney, but she won't talk about it, with or without an attorney, but she may wish to correct me on that. 

Since we at the Planet do not have a corrections feature, I am constantly approached by dissatisfied sources, who have quibbles. Some of their quibbles have brought tears to my eyes. "I wrote that?" I have responded frequently. 

In the case of my Chief Meehan gaff, I was relying on sources I neither named nor alluded to, generally, who attended the meeting of which I wrote. I did not attend the meeting. I believe my mistake was a conflation. Worse, I may have needed the paragraph which was in error, to establish that the Chief has been under fire lately. 

There is nothing more frustrating than to have your story unravel, just because the facts won't support it. It's enough to drive you to fiction writing. 

The worst journalistic practice occurs when you stretch a fact for brevity. In my recent Planet piece about Portland, Oregon, I referred to a death as "suspicious," just because the victim died behind the wheel of a car in a non-accident, and the cause of death had not yet been determined. 

I wanted to spice up the piece. My complaining source pointed out that suspicious death is reserved for cases where foul play is suspected. 

How bad a reporter am I? Please don't tell me. I'm too fragile, but I must say this: there are innocent mistakes, lazy mistakes, and foolish mistakes, but when someone is bruised by a mistake, the defense of "innocent mistake" don't cut it. 

Even worse, there are little mistakes, which the Times trots out as trojan horses to mask their reporter, Judith Miller's "mistakes," which allegedly got us into Iraq, and then there are cosmic mistakes, like those of Miller's and her editors. 

The Times eventually devoted an editorial, apologizing for their Iraq debacle. 

I left out the arrogant mistake and the lying mistake. Arrogant mistakes are akin to the remark made by Roger Rot Thornhill (or is it just Roger R.?) that "in advertising, there are no lies, just the expedient exaggeration." Expedient exaggerations appeal to wise-guy writers who sometimes favor form over substance. 

You wise-guy writers know who you are. 

There is possibly nothing worse than such arrogance, but someone may wish to correct this expedient exaggeration. 

I have memorized a self-serving apology for my victims. The speech goes something like this although I may have to correct myself. "There are an average 865 facts, or is it 863?including addresses and such in one of my stories," although I am taking a wild guess with this, so don't bother to correct me, or quibble over the definition of fact. 

"I am correct most of the time," I say, and "besides, I am always close to the deep truth of the story," whatever that is. I once went out of my way to take the name of an event from its flyer, because I was getting the name wrong--and still got it wrong. I told the complaining source, "I got the day and the fact that the event occurred. So you can be thankful of that." 

When all my excuses fall flat, I go to Alexander Pope, an oft-quoted poet and wit from the 16th Century, or is it 15th Century? You take a guess--so I can correct you. 

The quote is, "to err is human, to forgive, divine," or was it John Donne? But most people are less interested in divine forgiveness than in accuracy. 

Ask not for whom the bell (tools?) tolls. Wasn't that Donne, or was it Pope? 

Fact check this, dear reader.