How We Fix Misteaks

OMBUDSMAN

March 22, 1992|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF | ERNEST F. IMHOFF,Ernest F. Imhoff is the readers' representative at The Baltimore Sun.

Philip S. Heisler, a former managing editor of The Evening Sun, used to urge us to be unafraid of printing corrections. ''It keeps you honest and it makes you look good,'' he said.

Lately we may be taking him too seriously. Phil also said get it right the first time.

In three days, March 12-14, The Sun ran 14 corrections on Page 2A. In January, The Sun, Evening Sun and county Suns ran at least 22 corrections and in February, 23. But in the first half of March there were 45 corrections. That's almost 90 in 45 days.

An unofficial computer check of 1991 corrections in The Sun, Evening Sun and county sections showed 576 corrections (11 a week).

Some of the recent mistakes were typical: a wrong name for a politician, a bad date, confusing a city and a state government agency, mistaking district for Federal court, a wrong crime location, an incorrect picture caption, a missing ''not,'' naming a politician a check-bouncer when he wasn't, an incorrect court ruling and a wrong recipe.

By the way, it was The Evening Sun that published the immortal Page 1 banner headline April 15, 1912: All Titanic Passengers Are Safe; Transferred in Lifeboats at Sea.

Back to 1992. What's going on? Are there more errors now than before?

The error tide may be in. But it'll ebb. First let's put this into context.

''Be suspicious of any paper that has few corrections,'' said Henry McNulty, an ombudsman at The Hartford Courant, which runs about 1,200 fixes a year. ''I hate every one we print. But we put out a small novel [he probably meant a non-fiction book] every day, with thousands and thousands of potential mistakes. . . . We correct everything, even wrong middle initials.''

Some of our missteps are minor; some are major. Papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times also run corrections (22 in the Post and 24 in the Times in one week this month).

Editors, writers, photographers, copy editors, artists and clerks make mistakes. A recent buyout left some doing more work in new jobs. Sometimes we're sloppy or just misunderstand things. Sometimes our sources feed us bum information. Or we miss errors in wire-service stories.

Few other businesses admit their boo-boos so readily. Television and radio are blissfully free of corrections despite error-filled talk shows.

''My experience is that corrections come in bunches,'' Editor John Carroll said. ''Editors wonder why, but the pendulum always swings back. It's a slam-bang process. It all goes together in a few hours.''

There are errors and there are sea changes. ''It's relatively easy to correct errors of fact,'' Mr. Carroll said. ''It's less easy to correct big misjudgments. Certain papers in the South pretended the civil-rights movement never happened. But they never ran a correction, it was of such monumental proportions.''

Newspapers sit on the high moral ground and love to find fault, so admitting errors is right. Besides, when readers know we goofed on such an essential thing as a name or their street, they wonder: What else is wrong?

Kathryn Christensen, managing editor, has just told all staffers to redouble efforts in several ways to be accurate. Three copy editors put out ''Publish and Be Damned,'' a monthly internal newsletter fighting writing and editing gremlins. I write a daily Readers Report for all employees on complaints questioning our fairness, accuracy and completeness.

After the boo-boos, what then? We catch our own mistakes. Or, readers and sources tell us about them. Department heads decide corrections, and a top editor approves them. We don't promise to fix all perceived errors but Ms. Christensen says ''When in doubt, correct.'' The Sun puts its corrections on Page 2A, The Evening Sun in different sections, perhaps in a less organized way.

Some of us keep the Titanic page from 80 years ago. We jokingly remind our critics of the headline when they charge we print only bad news. But our mistakes are no joke.

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