- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

Making amends

Nobody likes to admit having made a mistake, and that is particularly true in the news business where our very existence depends on the ability of our readers to depend on the truthfulness and accuracy of what they read in our pages.

For that reason every article we publish is read by at least three editors and sometimes more, especially if it is going to appear on the front page.

In the case of wire agency stories, the material receives at least a couple of additional edits before it even reaches us.

Nevertheless, with tens of thousands of words of material needing to be researched, written and edited within the space of eight to 10 hours every day, mistakes do slip through.

A recent briefing page article, for example, cited binge drinking as a factor in the deaths of 14,000 American students every year; the correct number should have been 1,400.

Some sharp editor should have looked at that and said, “14,000 sounds like a very high number, we had better have the reporter double-check it.” But that didn’t happen, and the error got into the paper, where it not only was read by our print readers in the Washington area but also by Internet readers around the world.

Potentially worse, it will also go into databases like LexisNexis where it will live forever and perhaps be repeated by other reporters using our article as a research tool.

That’s why we print corrections. We understand that it’s a bit like shooting ourselves in the foot, in the sense that we call our readers’ attention to our failures every time a correction appears.

But we also understand that our credibility would be even more seriously damaged if readers thought we were unwilling to correct our mistakes. And the last thing we want is for people to go around repeating misstatements of fact and saying, “Well, I read it in The Washington Times.”

Our editors all understand that when they receive a phone call or e-mail calling their attention to a purported error, they should respond politely that the matter will be looked into and a correction will be printed if warranted.

They should then get in touch with the reporter involved and determine whether there was indeed a mistake. If so, we try to find out whether the mistake was made by a reporter or editor, notify a senior editor, and arrange for a correction to be published as quickly as possible.

Names and titles

One exception is in the case of wire agency copy. In those cases we refer the caller to the agency, providing a phone number if possible, so the agency itself can investigate whether a mistake was made. If the agency moves a correction on its wire, we will publish that.

While we want to correct our errors as quickly as possible, we would much prefer not to make them at all. Our senior editors take this matter so seriously that they conducted an analysis of the last 100 corrections to appear in the paper over a period of about 11 months.

Of those 100 corrections, 55 were the result of factual errors introduced into the stories by the reporters. And of those 55, a whopping 40 were cases where we had incorrectly identified some official or the office which he or she held.

Another 17 corrections were the result of errors that were introduced into the stories by overzealous editors, often when seeking to clarify something that was ambiguous in the original story.

Only five of the corrections were on wire agency stories, largely because these go through a complete editing process both at the agency and at The Washington Times.

Another four corrections involved situations where a person had been misquoted, four involved misspelled names and three were the result of “source error,” for instance where a person being interviewed for a story misstated his own job title. Bizarre, but it happens.

By the way, there is one bit of good news about those errors in LexisNexis and other databases. Corrections now are electronically linked to the original articles so that they come up when the original article is called up.

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

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