RTE’s Error of the Year

And other highlights from the year in corrections, retractions, and apologia

It’s been a very stressful couple of weeks.

Every year at this time, I publish the Year in Media Errors and Corrections on Regret the Error, a catalogue of the best of the worst in journalism mistakes and fixes. My equivalent to the Oscar for Best Picture is the Error of the Year and the Correction of the Year. My big fear is that I will make the wrong choice, or ignore something obvious. The mistake would be mine alone, as I don’t currently solicit votes from the public. (Would that be a good idea? Let me know what you think in the comments of this column.)

I waffled over this year’s choices. I really sweat over this stuff, as silly as that may seem. The most difficult choice was this year’s Error of the Year.

Do I give it to the Italian journalist who fabricated a series of interviews with famous people? To serial plagiarist Gerald Posner? Aside from those strong individual candidates, recent weeks saw two impressive submissions. There was The Independent, an English paper that recently identified the wrong man as a Nazi war criminal. On its front page. With a full page photo. And still hasn’t fessed up.

Then there was Cooks Source. This was a publication that routinely stole the work of writers in order to fill its pages. Yes, bad stuff. But it was elevated to a new level by the editor’s amazingly ignorant response when a writer objected to having her work used without permission. From the now-famous e-mail reply: “the web is considered ‘public domain’ and you should be happy we just didn’t ‘lift’ your whole article and put someone else’s name on it!”

The editor’s response made the incident go viral, which caused it to become one of the year’s highest-profile media errors. That, in turn, inspired people to begin searching through the Cooks Source archives for other examples of theft. (Look at the more than 160 examples collected here.) In the end, Cooks Source closed its kitchen—the magazine is finished.

So it came down to the mistaken Nazi or the malicious now-departed magazine. These are the choices I’m faced with; it’s an interesting life.

In the end, I gave the Error of the Year hardware to Cooks Source. It’s not often you see a series of errors cause a publication to shut down, while at the same time inspire a crowdsourced fact-checking project. So far, only the Boston Globe has come close to questioning the decision (the paper made special note of the Independent error).

The Correction of the Year was a different kind of battle. On one hand, you have a seriously inaccurate and outrageous piece of journalism by London’s Sunday Times. Last year the paper used the “climategate” emails to produce a wholly inaccurate and manipulated piece of journalism about the Amazon rainforests. The paper steadfastly refused to correct its reporting until the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission got involved.

Then there was this, from Calbuzz.com:

In our Saturday post about the California Democratic Party’s ad attacking Meg Whitman but masquerading as an “issues ad,” we described the abrupt ending to our conversation with CDP Chairman John Burton. Through his spokesman, Burton on Monday complained that he had been misquoted. Burton says he didn’t say “Fuck you.” His actual words were, “Go fuck yourself.” Calbuzz regrets the error.

I wrote about the above in a column earlier this year.

The choice was between a correction of great importance and one that was simply amazing and hilarious. I went with the former, wanting to bring attention to the fact that the Sunday Times’’s transgressions were outrageous.

From there, many of the other decisions were fairly easy (though I detail on the site how I briefly waffled on the Apology of the Year). Most of the other entries dared to be ignored. For example, how could I not cite a correction like this one from The Sun in Britain:

In an article on February 3, we implied two thirds of Haitians drank goats’ blood while practising voodoo. We are happy to make clear this is not the case.

So does that mean more than two thirds of Haitians drink goats’ blood while practicing voodoo? Or they do it just for fun and not out of a religious inclination? Or no goats’ blood at all?

One regular awardee in my year-end post is Slate. That site somehow always manages to come up with corrections that present very strange information in a hilarious, matter-of-fact manner. From this year’s round-up:

In a May 21 ”Slatest” item, Jessica Loudis mistakenly cited a New Scientist article as saying that male bats that performed fellatio on each other before copulation. The article stated that female bats perform fellatio on male bats during copulation.

This one earned the award for Most Puzzling Correction:

In the April 29 “Culturebox,” Jonah Weiner originally stated that Moses was rendered as a giant glowing dreidel. Moses was depicted as the Master Control Program from the film Tron. Who sort of looks like a giant glowing dreidel.

Reuters also deserves recognition for its continued presence in the year-end post. This year it earned a mention in the typo category for referring to the Large Hadron Collider as the “Large Hardon Collider.” (I know, I’m a child.)

Last year it was recognized for this rather amazing fortune-telling lead:

The news service is also a former two-time champ (2005 and 2006) in the highly competitive Typo of the Year category for favorites such as reporting about the recall of “beef panties” and some amazing reporting about Queen Elizabeth.

Its reign in that category ended in 2007, when it was forced to settle for runner-up status with a typo that referred to the Muttahida Quami Movement the “Muttonhead Quail Movement.”

Which brings me to this year’s top typo. It was the now-famous TBD.com error that led to this correction (and a column from me):

This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.

TBD.com is barely a few months old and it’s already managed to make an impact. No, this annual rite isn’t going to get any easier for me…

Correction of the Week

“Owing to an editing error, we said that Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall slept with more than 1,000 women in a three-year period during the mid-80s. That was meant to be more than 1,000 a year, based on his estimate of an average of three such encounters a day, as stated elsewhere in our stories (A new flame: Hucknall apology to 1,000 women he bedded, page 19, 3 December; ‘I feel a bit like the antichrist’, page 3, Film & Music).” - The Guardian

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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. Tags: , , , , ,