Homegrown Errorists

Error-spotter Robert Reed vs. the Decatur, Illinois Herald & Review

The package arrived two weeks ago, a bulging manila envelope with a return address in Decatur, Illinois. Inside was a mass of paper with a polite letter placed on top.

“Dear Mr. Silverman,” it began, “you have published a book on errors found in journalism and have a website devoted to the subject.” The writer, Robert S. Reed, continued on for two pages:

As a subscriber to the Herald & Review in Decatur Illinois, I have seen hundreds of errors in newspaper articles in addition to errors in the photo captions and the headlines/sub-headings. Most are misspelled words, missing words, extra words, wrong verb tenses, and, in some cases, factual inaccuracies.

Two of the articles from 2008 are attached to illustrate my point … I am also attaching 82 photo captions that appeared in the Decatur Herald & Review in 2008. All contain errors of one type or another. The corrections are indicated in ink. Also enclosed are 35 copies of headlines and sub-headings.

The more than 100 clippings were roughly an inch thick, and Reed was as good as his word. Each page correctly noted a copy editing or factual error from the paper. Red ink was everywhere, and in all the right places. The collection represented hours of work, not to mention the time spent photocopying them for delivery to me.

Some may wonder why anyone would choose to dedicate this amount of time to cataloging the errors in their local paper. But it’s no surprise to me at all. I’ve seen it before. (Plus, I’ve dedicated the last four years to reading hundreds of thousands of corrections and errors. I’m in no position to judge.)

My first encounter with a dedicated error-spotter came in 2006, when I received an e-mail from a man named Mark Powell. He informed that he had been spotting errors in The Washington Post for months. Powell sent me several Word files that listed hundreds of errors made by the paper. I also came to know a U.K. man named Aldous Russel because he never failed to spot my mistakes on the Regret the Error Web site. He reprised his role when I asked readers of my book to spot my mistakes. (You can read the resulting corrections here.)

Powell had for years been trying to turn his error-spotting prowess into a job in journalism. Both the Post and The New York Times have rebuffed him. Still, his work earned him a lengthy story in Seattle Weekly last fall. I also made mention of him in my book:

Powell lives in Virginia and his paper of choice is the Washington Post. As far as he is concerned, the paper’s corrections “represent a very tiny fraction of the paper’s ‘correctable’ errors. Fact is nearly none of the thousand-odd errors I’ve cataloged—probably less than 2 percent— were ever corrected.”

… [Powell] was as focused and dedicated an external fact-checker as I’ve come across, and no doubt a thorn in the Post’s side since he regularly e-mailed editors with his findings. I told him he struck me as the kind of person who would have been well suited to the job of proofreader. Too bad it no longer exists.

Though these pedantic readers often end up driving editors and reporters crazy with their constant emails, I’ve found that they’re right most of the time. (The people who scream bias over every article have a lower hit rate.) From the Seattle Weekly piece about Powell:

Mark Powell finds mistakes everywhere he looks. National monuments, scholarly texts, museums, The Washington Post, The New York Times: All have drawn the attention of Powell’s rabid, error-spotting eye. Powell will leave you seven-minute voicemails about these errors. When you call him back, he’ll tell you how good he is at finding them—in great detail. When after two and a half hours you finally manage to hang up the phone, you’ll vow never to speak with Mark Powell again. Then he’ll call, and you’ll listen. Because the thing is, Mark Powell is always right.

External fact checkers often have different motives. Powell is looking to land a copy editing job. When I got him on the phone yesterday, Robert Reed, the man who recently sent me a stack of clippings, told me he does it because he wants his local paper to meet a higher standard.

Reed began tracking his paper’s errors two years ago after reading an editorial decrying a new practice that restricted press photographers to a specific area when covering high school athletics.

“[The paper was] criticizing this policy and they made it sound like readers were being deprived by not being allowed to see photos from the best vantage point,” said Reed, a former school teacher and retired mass transit administrator. “I thought it was ironic because readers are really being cheated on the quality of journalism in the paper due to all the typos and factual errors.”

Roughly every month, Reed, sixty-seven, sends editors at the paper his latest collection of errors and typos. He’s occasionally heard back from individual reporters and editors, but his missives are usually met with silence. No doubt people in the Herald & Review newsroom don’t look forward to receiving the monthly envelope from one Robert S. Reed. But he keeps sending them in the hope that the examples will help the paper improve its copy editing. He’d also like to see them correct their errors with more frequency.

How often does he see a correction for an error he’s spotted?

“They publish a correction probably less than one percent of the time,” he says. (That number isn’t too far off the findings of a landmark 2007 corrections study by Scott Maier at the University of Oregon.)

Reed says he watches TV and reads news online, but relies on the paper as his “primary source of information about what’s going on locally and internationally.” The Herald & Review is the only daily in Decatur. He’s got no other choice. So out comes the red pen…

“I’m doing it to make them aware of how they need to improve their proofreading and the quality of their journalism,” he says.

Of course, a careful reader like him is acutely aware of the likelihood of that happening at any newspaper in today’s economy. Reed starts talking about the falling share price of the paper’s owner, Lee Enterprises. He mentions the debt the company took on to purchase the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Falling advertising.

“With these kinds of financial pressures, I think we’re going to see less attention paid to quality and error checking,” he says.

That means more work for him.

“It is sort of a habit,” he says, “and it’s probably something I’ll continue to do.”

Correction of the Week

“This article was amended on Tuesday 20 January 2009. In our entry on Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, we referred to a Prairie Ho Companion; we meant a Prairie Home Companion. This has been corrected.” – The Guardian (U.K.)

Phantom Source

“A story on residential schools payments that appeared in yesterday’s National Post, and was provided by the Canwest News Service, incorrectly attributed quotes to Brenda Reynolds. All of the quotes attributed to Ms. Reynolds, regarding deaths in British Columbia and recipients’ reactions to the payments, were made by Sharon Thira of the Indian Residential Schools Survival Society. Ms. Reynolds, a psychologist who works with former residential school students, did not make any comments for this story. Canwest News Service regrets the error.” – National Post (Canada)

Parting Shot

“FOLLOWING our article on 16 November which stated that Heather Mills had recently had a third boob job Heather Mills has asked us to point out that she has not had breast enlargement surgery. Furthermore, we wish to clarify that Ms Mills has not spent pounds 1million on a swimming pool and has not spent pounds 6million on other properties.” – Sunday Mirror (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.