Glass Houses

Reporting others' mistakes is an excellent way to be reminded of your own fallibility

It’s not recognized as one of the fundamentals of the profession, but journalists spend a lot of time pointing out other people’s mistakes.

Major news over the past few weeks has included Cabinet nominees that erred in their tax filings, a famous baseball player who took performance enhancing drugs, and an Olympic champion who inhaled performance inhibiting drugs.

Journalists spend a lot of time holding public officials and institutions accountable for their actions. That inevitably means we spend time on the mistake beat: who made them, why they made them, and whether or not they offered an appropriate apology.

It’s important work, but it also leaves the press open to accusations of hypocrisy when it does a poor job of admitting and correcting its own mistakes. There’s also the undeniable potential for irony, which was expressed in an editor’s note published by the Valley News last year. It appeared the day after the paper misspelled its own name on the front page:

Readers may have noticed that the Valley News misspelled its own name on yesterday’s front page. Given that we routinely call on other institutions to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes, let us say for the record: we sure feel silly.

I’m also partial to this 2007 correction from the Spokesman-Review:

Ron Riel’s name was misspelled in Accuracy Watch Friday, due to an editor’s error.

The irony police should have been out in full force this month when the Times of London published an article about Wikipedia’s efforts to prevent inaccuracies on some of its more popular entries. The writer, Giles Hattersley, opened the story by listing some of the site’s mistakes and incidents of vandalism:

Jimmy Wales is in the departure lounge at JFK airport, New York, sucking his breath with shame as he tells me of the moment when his beloved Wikipedia got it wrong.

“Take your pick,” I’m thinking. Was it the day Alan Titchmarsh’s Wikipedia entry stated that he had penned a sequel to the Kama Sutra? Or when Bruce Springsteen’s biography kicked off with: “This guy kinda sucks.” Or when Alistair Darling’s life story was replaced with a sentence so profane it would be impossible to reprint here?

Those mistakes are fair game, but Wikipedia doesn’t exactly claim to offer New Yorker-level fact checking. Still, Hattersley pressed on, suggesting that the site “feels like the Mrs Malaprop of cyberspace. You will no doubt be familiar with the poor spelling, shaky sources and downright misinformation.”

Unfortunately for him and the paper, Hattersley went too far by noting that his own Wikipedia entry “features at least two errors, one libellous (unless my mother has been keeping a dark secret, I am not Roy Hattersley’s son).”

As Shane Richmond of the Daily Telegraph pointed out on his blog, Wikipedia has never had an entry for Giles Hattersley. “Journalists should always strive for accuracy and such an error in an article about inaccuracy looks very silly,” he wrote. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.”

Hattersley took to Wikipedia, his favorite reliable news venue, to explain the error:

As to this thing about a Wikipedia entry - as far as I know, I’ve never had one. I think the line must have been tweaked at some stage (not by me) from talking about mentions of my name on the site to an actual entry. The mistake pointed out in the piece, was pointed out to me a year or two ago in some corresponding page where my name cropped up - either Roy Hattersley’s entry, or a third party’s page. I’m glad to hear it no longer exists!

The Times added an editor’s note to the online version of the article, though both it and Hattersley’s Wikipedia message fail to explain exactly where the (now deleted) mention of Hattersley originated. It’s the kind of question that any decent journalist would demand an answer for.

The lesson—and it’s one I’ve learned the hard way—is that reporting the mistakes of others is an excellent way to be reminded of your own fallibility.

Correction of the Week (that should have been Apology of the Week)

“A PHOTO in Sunday’s and yesterday’s Daily News of a woman identified as the madam Kristin Davis was in fact another woman, Bojana Vuleta. The News regrets the error.” – New York Daily News

Apology of the Week

“Today, a Financial Post reporter responded unprofessionally to another Twitter user on his personal Twitter account.

“While the remarks were made on the reporter’s personal Twitter account, the conversation first began when the reporter was acting in his capacity as a reporter for the Financial Post.

“We hold — and will continue to hold — all our reporters to a higher standard in how they address anyone, in any forum.

“We apologize for the reporter’s conduct.” – National Post (Canada)

Parting Shot

“Because of an editing error, an article on Jan. 25 about the forthcoming film adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes” misidentified the character that Susan Downey, a producer on the film and the wife of its star, Robert Downey Jr., described as “a bit of a ladies man, a bit of a brawler” and as having “a gambling problem.” Ms. Downey was referring to Dr. John Watson, not Sherlock Holmes.” – The New York Times

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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.