- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

Googling errors

Our copy desk — the last people to read our stories before they go into the paper — recently queried me about the exact lyrics to a 1960s-era pop song by Country Joe McDonald, part of which had been quoted in a story from Bangkok.

Finding the answer once would have involved hours of research, but in this high-tech age it took about three minutes: I simply clicked on Google, typed in a couple of key words, and up popped a Web site with the complete lyrics to the song.

The Internet has revolutionized the way we work, placing vast amounts of valuable information literally at our fingertips. But what happens when Google gets it wrong?

We received an e-mail from the Office of Communications at Georgetown University this week pointing out that we had erroneously said the new president of Iraq, Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, had studied at their school.

“There has been a great deal of misreporting about this fact and we just wanted to clarify it for your future reference,” media relations officer Jaime Winne helpfully advised. “After checking numerous locations on campus, we have no record of him attending Georgetown.”

Miss Winne went on to say that Mr. al-Yawer had, in fact, attended George Washington University and she provided a name and number at that school in case I wanted to pursue the matter further.

Like all reputable newspapers, we take our errors seriously, and I wanted not only to correct the error but to find out how we got it wrong in the first place.

A quick check of our archives showed we had made the same mistake twice previously, once in an article by free-lance correspondent Borzou Daragahi and once in a story from the Associated Press.

Then I turned to Google, typing in both Yawer and Georgetown. I received more than 2,300 matches, most of them news reports mistakenly saying Mr. al-Yawer had been a student at that school.

A correction helps

The list of erring organizations was impressive, including newspapers such as the New York Times and the Houston Chronicle; television outlets such as NewsHour and NewsChannel 8; Web sites such as FoxNews.com; and overseas media including the British Broadcasting Corp., International Herald Tribune, the Irish Examiner and the Singapore Straits Times.

The mistake also turned up on a Web site that was new to me but seemed aptly named: Disinfopedia.

Eric Solomon, a media relations specialist at George Washington University, told me he understood the error originated with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, which got the schools mixed up when it put out autobiographical material following the appointment of Mr. al-Yawer.

Over at Georgetown, university spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille said the school was sending polite e-mails to media organizations whenever they saw the mistake, with the most recent going to the Financial Times in London last week.

“As soon as the news broke about the naming of the new president, we started getting calls,” she said. “Sometimes people even here in Washington confuse the two universities that have ‘George’ in their names.”

It was a simple enough mix-up, but it raises a bigger point: Once a mistake like this gets onto the Internet, how do you call it back? Will researchers and journalists for decades to come find these reports that Mr. al-Yawer attended Georgetown University and continue to include it in their papers and articles?

The best defense is the humble correction. Once we correct an error like this, as we did this week, it becomes permanently attached to the original story in our own archive and in public databases such as Lexis-Nexis.

But first it has to be corrected. When we checked on Lexis-Nexis earlier this week, the original New York Times article containing the mistake — which also had been published in the Herald Tribune and elsewhere — still had no correction appended.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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