It’s a Small Word

Great damage can be done by subtracting a single word

I’ve read hundreds of thousands of corrections over the last nearly five years, and one of my favorites is also one of the first I read. Here it is, as published by the Dallas Morning News in October of 2004:

An Oct. 19 article on songwriter John Bucchino incorrectly stated that he doesn’t read. The sentence should have said he doesn’t read music.

While not particularly shocking or lengthy, this correction has stuck with me because it communicates the damage that can be done by the careless subtraction of one word. Suddenly Bucchino goes from being a natural musician to an illiterate. This is the risk we run when handling words and facts; people are often putting their reputations, businesses, and families in our care when they talk to us.

I can’t help but imagine Bucchino’s face when he read the original article. What was his reaction? Did he laugh? Swear in anger? Immediately call the paper? I wonder the same thing about another person written about by the Dallas paper, Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk. A year after Bucchino’s correction, the News published this:

Norma Adams-Wade’s June 15 column incorrectly called Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk a socialist. She is a socialite.

Oh, that’ll do wonders for your social standing in Dallas. I always think of these two corrections together because they demonstrate how easily journalists can offend, anger, and malign people. Sometimes all it takes is a missing or changed word. Other times, the incorrect assertions about citizens and readers go on for sentences or paragraphs. People rarely forget if you misspell their name in the paper; but they definitely won’t forget if you incorrectly end their marriage and claim that they were in therapy. From the Free Lance-Star in Virginia this week:

Virginia English’s 27-year marriage did not end, nor did English seek therapy for reasons related to her marriage. A story in Healthy Living on Sunday was incorrect on these points.

Or how about reporting that a woman has cancer? This was published by the North Shore News in British Columbia this week:

The April 1 article Women Fare Well in Pageant contained incorrect information about North Vancouver’s Shelley Matheson.

While Matheson did attend Miss World Canada, she has never struggled with cancer as the article stated.

The North Shore News regrets this error and its impact on Matheson and her family.

Here’s how the offending story began:

When North Vancouver’s Shelley Matheson won the Miss Greater Vancouver title at last summer’s local Miss B.C. pageant, her doctors weren’t sure if she would make it to this month’s Miss World Canada competition in Ontario.

Matheson, 20, has been battling cancer, and at times has been told that it was a losing battle. However, she fought the odds, and according to a written statement, made it out East to take her spot on the Miss World Canada stage March 21.

These are cringe-worthy corrections. They’re also instructive. We should remember that every interaction with a source or interview subject involves them putting their trust in our professionalism and ability to take what they say and reproduce it accurately, within the proper context. We often have people’s reputations in our hands, and a simple slip of the finger can have a negative impact on a person’s life.

Correction of the Week

“A news agency item (Volcano begins to erupt on Galapagos island, 13 April, page 20) reported that flowing lava could affect “iguanas, wolves and other fauna” on Fernandina island. The surprising reference to wolves probably stemmed from a mistranslation of one of the South American terms for sea lion, lobo marino (sea wolf).” – The Guardian

A Spy Thriller

“A My Word column on Thursday’s opinion pages about an encounter between a bartender and a female customer who turned out to be a “bar spy” was fictionalized. Although the column was not labeled as fiction when submitted, its author, Robert J. Havel of Winter Park, said after publication that he intended it as a satirical response to an April 4 news article about bar spotters, who are hired to detect uncover theft and other problems at bars.” – Orlando Sentinel

Parting Shot

“IN OUR issue of 25 April 2008 we published a quiz question that asked in which sport was Briton Robert Dee officially the world’s worst professional.

“This question was based on a false premise concerning Robert Dee’s record in International Tennis Federation tournaments.

“We would like to make it clear that far from being the world’s worst professional tennis player, Mr Dee is a hardworking and continually improving young player who has won professional tennis matches in Spain.

“We apologise to Mr Dee for any embarrassment caused by the publication of this question and we are making a payment of damages to him by way of compensation.” – Birmingham Mail (U.K.)

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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.