We regret the errors - some more than others

December 25, 2005|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

The Sun takes fixing the mistakes it makes almost every day very seriously. The newspaper's policy is to publish a correction as soon as possible after the discovery and confirmation of an error.

The seriousness of errors varies. Most common are relatively simple "black and white" mistakes - misspelled names, historical inaccuracies and erroneous geographical locations.

Some are the result of inaccurate material provided by an outside source. Others come when writers or editors fail to add vital details. Still others may be more subtle, like sentences or words that can be read to have more than one meaning. These more subtle problems require the most scrutiny from editors.

While any error is no joking matter in the newsroom, there are times when the nature of a mistake can make some readers grab their heads in amazement.

One recent mistake brought this reaction from reader Judith Temperley.

"I can't believe that the Baltimore Sun confused astrology and astronomy," Ms. Temperley said. "In your Health & Science section of Dec. 16, 2005, you published an item titled `A possible sign of more planets' under the heading of Astrology. Please, please, check your dictionary. Astrology is the pseudo science which treats the influence of the stars on human affairs. Astronomy is the science of the stars, galaxies and their physical properties."

Ms. Temperley is right, of course. The Sun's Dec. 17 correction read: "An article in yesterday's Health and Science section describing a star where planets like earth may be forming was incorrectly labeled. The label should have read `Astronomy.'"

Through the year, The Sun had other unusual corrections. Here are a few:

On Oct. 12: "A headline in an article in Sunday's Howard County edition of The Sun about the county school system's capital budget was incorrect. The Howard County Board of Education approved a nearly $100 million capital budget, not a $1 billion spending plan."

On Jan. 5: "Because of an editing error, a photo caption in yesterday's Maryland section incorrectly described what was visible in a stroller pushed by Gene Burg of Churchville. The top of his granddaughter's head was showing, not a stuffed toy."

On Nov. 29: "The caption of the Picture This photographs in yesterday's Maryland section mistakenly said the Preakness Stakes is run at Laurel Park. The race is held at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore."

By the end of this year, The Sun will have published between 500 and 600 corrections or clarifications. By industry standards that is not an unusually large number for a newspaper its size. It is also important to note that in recent years newspapers have become much more vigilant in publishing corrections.

After assessing the corrections published in 2005, it is my view that The Sun is a reasonably well-edited newspaper, but is struggling to be consistent in its fact checking and editing.

The vast majority of this year's errors are of the "black and white" variety. The most common area for mistakes has been in the presentation of the daily lottery numbers - a seemingly simple chore complicated by the posting of winning numbers for an array of games from a number of states.

Once a correction or a clarification is published, it is automatically attached to the top of the original story in The Sun's electronic archive. This is to ensure that errors are not repeated when the original is used as source material by the newspaper or by its readers.

A Web site called Regret The Error (www. regrettheerror.com) offers a global perspective on mistakes in newspapers and magazines. It's editors recently published a compilation of "Errors of the Year."

The "Typo of the Year" award went to Reuters news service for its report on a recall of "beef panties."

The runner up was from the Dallas Morning News: "Norma-Adams-Wade's June 15 column incorrectly called Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk a socialist. She is a socialite."

The "Best Rewriting of History" was from The New York Times: "An obituary of the civil rights leader James Forman misstated a word in describing his call, in 1969, for reparations to be paid by Protestant and Jewish groups for the crimes of slavery. Mr. Forman asked for $500 million for crimes perpetrated against generations of blacks, not `by' them."

Like weeds in a garden, errors have been and always will be part of the news gathering and editing process. Newspapers are history written on deadline, and the volume of material processed every day is significant.

While some of the errors noted in this column might elicit a chuckle, it is obvious that too many mistakes can seriously undermine a newspaper's credibility. On some days I worry that sloppy editing may be bringing The Sun to that point. With that danger in mind, journalists need to strive for perfection.

So, even as many newspapers struggle to cope with budget cuts and reduced staffing, higher standards for editing, accuracy checks and proofreading must be a priority.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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