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When outlets report errors...about themselves

One strict rule in the medical profession holds that no doctors can treat themselves or any member of their immediate family. The press, however, is without a similar proscription. Be it good news or bad, news organizations routinely report about themselves.

Newspapers write obituaries for long serving editors, executives and reporters. An award for reporting or photography, or a spike or drop in circulation or profit, is always dutifully reported. Plagiarism or fabrication often, though unfortunately not always, results in a story.

Just as doctors can’t marshal the necessary detachment when examining their own condition, truth and accuracy can sometimes be sacrificed in the name of marketing. One of the best examples of spin you’ll ever see in a newspaper is when the latest circulation figures are released for a city with competing daily papers. Regardless of the figures, both sides will claim victory. (Sadly, it’s less of an issue these days.)

Perhaps it’s comforting to members of the public who’ve been victims of press error to learn that the press is just as prone to error when reporting about its own affairs. In fact, this week was notable because it offered several examples of the phenomenon. The New York Times in particular had trouble reporting on itself. One correction came after it confused some archival details:

An article on Tuesday about the first mention of penicillin in The New York Times misstated, at one point, the year that occurred. As the article correctly noted, the word first appeared in 1940, not 1922. (Alexander Fleming, the biologist who discovered penicillin, was first mentioned in the newspaper in 1922.)

But more embarrassing was the inability of the editorial staff to come up with an accurate figure for…the paper’s editorial staff. The correction:

An article on Monday about Carlos Slim Helú, who has become a major shareholder in and lender to The New York Times, referred incorrectly to the size of the newspaper’s editorial staff. While the newsroom payroll is indeed about 1,300, that number includes Web producers, graphic artists, photographers, researchers, secretaries, clerks and other staff members — not just reporters and editors.

Ad Age deserves mention for its story about the troubles faced by newspaper publishers. It too had to correct a few mistakes:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Rocky Mountain News lost $16 billion, rather than $16 million, last year. It also mistakenly said the Chandlers controlled Knight Ridder, rather than Times Mirror.

The Columbus Dispatch rounded out a remarkable week of self-inflicted wounds when it published an article celebrating an award garnered by its photography staff. Unfortunately, the contest judges had made a tabulation error. Though not its fault, the paper had to publish a correction:

The photography staff at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland was named the best in Ohio by the Ohio News Photographers Association. Because of incorrect information supplied to The Dispatch, an incorrect winner was announced on Page B3 of yesterday’s Metro & State section.

Physician, heal thyself.

Correction of the Week

An article on Jan. 28 about women who commiserated over dating Wall Street bankers caught in the financial crisis described a group they had formed, Dating a Banker Anonymous, as a support group. That is the name of their blog. Its creators originally told The Times that about 30 women had participated, but since publication, they have said that all involved were friends. Laney Crowell, one of the women who started the blog, said in the article that it was “very tongue in cheek;” she has since described it as a satire that embellishes true experiences for effect. Had the nature of the blog been made clear at the outset, the article would have described it accordingly, not as a support group. — The New York Times

Fuzzy Numbers

There were three computation errors in Christopher Hayes’s March 2 “Cut the Military Budget.” The Pentagon budget request represents a 13 (not 12) percent increase over last year’s budget. The reported Obama Defense Department appropriation would represent a 2.2 percent increase over last year’s budget (not 8 percent). And regarding the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, $3.4 billion divided by 95,000 works out to $35,800 per job (not $35.8 million). So it is not true that “more jobs would be created by hiring people to shred the money.” We deeply regret the errors and have FedExed a new abacus to our Washington bureau. —The Nation

Parting Shot

In yesterday’s World of Wonder page, the heading “typography” should have read “topography.” — The Star-Ledger

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