Off the Map

Daily newspapers are constant sources of geographical errors

This week, a high school in Liverpool, England caused a stir by announcing it would no longer offer separate classes in geography and history.

“The school – formerly Manor High School – said a decline in students wishing to study the subjects to examination level was behind the move,” reported the Crosby Herald.

You can almost see the paper wagging its finger at the school. It had better be careful, though, because daily newspapers are constant sources of geographical errors. For example, just a few days before the Herald reported this latest attack on geography, The Observer, a Sunday paper in England, confessed to a series of geographical blunders:

Crossed consonants: the accidental substitution of an “r” for an “x” led to the incorrect labelling of Paros and Antiparos as “Paxos” and “Antipaxos” in our map of “Greece’s Hidden Corners” (Escape, 10 May), thus relocating the latter from the Ionian to the Aegean sea.

And, furthermore, the capital of Turkey is Ankara, not Istanbul, as we said in “‘Free holiday’ scams abroad will catch out 400,000 Brits” (Cash, last week).

TS Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, so we were not technically correct in “Revealed: the remarkable tale of TS Eliot’s late love affair” (Review, last week) when we described him as having “Mississippi roots”, suggesting he hailed from the Magnolia State. However, the Mississippi River meets the Missouri River near St Louis.

The Guardian, the Observer’s sister paper, made the same mistake about the capital of Turkey back in April.

Kids who learn their capitals backwards and forwards at a very young age are often celebrated for their intelligence. You sometimes see them showing off their skills on talk shows or late night TV. There was also a recent Pepsi ad that featured the actor who played Carmella Soprano’s father declaring to an uppity youngster that the capital of Djibouti is Djibouti. (I forget how the can of soda fit in.)

Just as his command of African geography was a sign of mental fitness, many readers feel that the frequency of geographical errors in the press is a sign of decline.

In 2007, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dedicated an editorial to the importance of geography after its “cartographic ignorance” caused an error:

NO WONDER geography needs more emphasis, not less, in Arkansas schools.

We ourselves are an embarrassing case in point: We got our past and current African horrors mixed up in Monday’s editorial. Robert Mugabe is the dictator who’s presided over the ruination of Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, rather than Rwanda, formerly the Belgian trusteeship of Ruanda-Urundi, the scene of a genocide that preceded the one in Darfur, a region of Sudan, formerly the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

The error was entirely our own and not that of our geography teacher in grade school or the old Book of Knowledge, the twin and wholly estimable sources of whatever geographical knowledge we still retain. The map of Africa has changed wildly since we had to draw it and memorize all the capitals back in class, which is no excuse for our mistake.

Rather, our cartographic ignorance is one more strong argument for emphasizing geography, along with history, as a separate discipline in elementary school…

This year has already seen a couple notable errors of geography. One of my favorites is from Slate:

In an April 7 “XX Factor” post, E.J. Graff originally wrote that she wanted to run up to Burlington, Vt., to kiss every legislator who voted in favor of gay marriage. Vermont legislators work out of the state capital, Montpelier.

But this one from the Canadian Press is the best of ’09 so far:

The Canadian Press moved a story April 3 that erroneously reported The Wilkins Ice Shelf was originally part of Jamaica. In fact the Ice Shelf, located on the western side of the Antarctic was originally the size of Jamaica.

Ice shelves in Jamaica? That’s an F for sure.

Correction of the Week

“The wrong stuff: Who can blame Russell Crowe for his cynicism about journalists getting things right? In a feature article (Mind games, page 16, SEVEN days, May 23) we misspelt the name of his character in his new movie State of Play and erred about his Academy Award. His character in the film is Cal McAffrey, not McCaffrey, and Crowe won his best actor Oscar in 2001 for Gladiator, not A Beautiful Mind.” – The West Australian

Over a Century of Excellence

“A report by The Associated Press in the National Briefing column on Jan. 6 about the resignation of Meg Whitman, the former chief executive of eBay, from three corporate boards misspelled part of the name of one of the companies. It is Procter & Gamble, not Proctor & Gamble. A reader pointed out the error in an e-mail message on Monday, and also correctly noted that The Times has misspelled the name more than 100 times. (This is the second correction.)” – The New York Times

Parting Shot

“We incorrectly said that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak had killed himself. It was actually former President Roh Moo-hyun who committed suicide.” – NPR

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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.