A Rare Peek at Why Errors Occur

Times offers treasure trove of error-related information

Last Sunday’s New York Times was a treasure trove of accuracy-related information, and I don’t mean the paper’s corrections column.

Readers were treated to a pair of articles that offered an impressive amount of insight into mistakes. One was a rare look back at the causes of recent mistakes made by the Times; the other piece seemingly had nothing to do with the press, yet it was just as valuable to journalism.

In the first story of note, Clark Hoyt, the public editor, dedicated his column to walking back the cat on three Times errors.

“Last month,” he wrote, “because reporters and editors in three different parts of the paper did not take enough pains to verify information, The Times reported as fact a political telephone call that didn’t happen, fell victim to a faked letter to the editor, and published a sensational anecdote about a college football recruiting battle that the paper cannot be confident is true.”

Hoyt took the time to go to the editors and reporters involved in the mistakes and ask them how and why the errors occured. The reasons included failing to follow the paper’s existing verification policies (the fake letter) and poor communication (the phantom phone call). The “sensational anecdote” was published due to the combination of an uncooperative and unreliable source, an editor working on Christmas day, and a high school English essay that included a reference to women “romancing each other.”

To those who think accuracy is boring stuff, eat your hearts out.

Hoyt’s article provides a rare peek at why errors occur. It’s essential information for journalists trying to prevent future mistakes, but you rarely see this kind of content in a newspaper. The average editor would probably say that it’s impossible to investigate the cause of every journalistic error, as that would require a full-time person, or even a department. But that’s the standard in other organizations.

Though the $106,641 salary made some people blush, the Bush administration hired a “director of lessons learned” to examine mistakes and come up with ways to avoid them. They also hired a director of fact checking. (Yes, I know, the jokes write themselves.) The U.S. military has an entire “lessons learned” department.

An ombudsman or public editor is the natural person to assume this role. But ombudsmen are often too busy with (important) tasks—such as responding to readers, writing corrections, and preparing a regular column—to take on the “lessons learned” role.

This brings me to the other notable Sunday Times story, “Making the Most of Your Workplace Mistakes”. It offered a wonderful range of advice about how to handle and learn from mistakes. One of the best pieces of advice came from Carol Tavris, the co-author of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me), and another expert:

The best companies make it a policy to show gratitude and reward employees for revealing their mistakes, Dr. Tavris said. Workers and managers need to view a mistake “as an inevitable human step on the path to improvement,” she said.

David D. Woods, a professor of human systems integration at Ohio State University, said managers need to make clear that “it’s more important to share the information than it is to identify the culprit.”

Perhaps those comments seem too general to directly apply to journalism. If so, I offer this comment from a Harvard professor:

Because layoffs have shrunk the staffing of many businesses, “we need to recognize that we’re more vulnerable than usual to mistakes,” she said. “We should be encouraging people to speak up sooner rather than later.”

Hopefully, that’s a lesson we don’t have to learn the hard way.

Correction of the Week

“Shane Watson wrote How to Meet a Man After Forty, not How to Meet a Man Over Forty (Digested Read, 20 January, page 19, G2).” – The Guardian (U.K.)

Notable Misquote

“A news in brief item on 9 January referred to the politician Imran Khan who was speaking to the court from Pakistan by video link during the trial of two London-based Baluchi defendants who deny charges of assisting terrorism. We have been asked to point out that Mr Khan was giving evidence as to the security and political situation in Pakistan, and that he did not ‘defend terror suspects’ but in fact told the court that in his view there was ‘no place for terrorism in a civilised society.’” – The Independent (U.K.)

Parting Shot

“Reginald Perrin visualised his mother-in-law, not his mother, as a hippopotamus (The strange afterlife of Reginald Perrin, 15 January, page 3, G2).” – The Guardian (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.