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.