About a month ago, I began the laborious and depressing task of scouring the archives of Regret the Error to find the best of the worst in media errors and corrections from 2008. I published my annual round-up earlier this week, and you can read it here, along with a month-by-month listing of incidents of plagiarism and fabrication.

It’s strange enough that I spent an hour or two a day tracking accuracy news and reading hundreds of corrections. Then, once a year, I go back and spend hours re-reading everything I published. Setting aside the obvious element of repetition, the worst part is having to relive a year of journalism scandals, errors and ethical infractions.

The good news: we were spared a Jayson Blair in 2008.

The bad news: instead of individual malfeasance, it occurred on an organizational level.

The best news: Dave Barry won Correction of the Year for this effort:

In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.

But back to the bad news… Three different news organizations pursued completely outrageous behavior this year, ranging from systematic fabrication to scandalously inaccurate reporting and manifold plagiarism. For their work, each earned a Regret the Error Award of Demerit, the lowest honor I offer in my annual round-up.

Here’s a summary of their offenses:

In Japan, the Mainichi Daily News, the English website of Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun, had to be relaunched thanks to its repeated publishing of false, titillating stories. In England, the Express Newspapers chain published a series of major front page apologies to repent for its wildly inaccurate and damaging reports about a British family. In the United States, the Bulletin, a weekly in Montgomery County, Texas, was revealed to be perhaps the first newspaper to pursue plagiarism as a standard operating procedure.

Those three incidents alone make 2008 a bad year for accuracy. Though I have yet to see a “good” year since I started doing this in 2004, there was one bright spot that deserves mention.

During the past year, I found myself looking forward to the corrections published by the West Australian. The paper’s errors were common enough, but the corrections were inspired. They did the basic job of admitting an error and providing the correct information; yet they almost always included a turn of phrase, touch of humor, or historical perspective. This, I said to myself many times, is a correction writer of a higher order. A sample (more are contained in this year’s round-up):

Bad conduct: Charles Mackerras was not born in Australia (Emma hits heights, Today, page 6, December 1). The eminent orchestra conductor was born to Australian parents in 1925 in musical-sounding Schenectady, New York. Apropos of nothing, Schenectady was where, in 1886, the Machine Works company was set up by Thomas Edison, who also knew a thing or two about conductors.

Hip hip, Horatio: Legendary British Admiral Horatio Nelson would have turned 250 today. We published a fascinating but mathematically muddled report from London about an auction today, wrongly stating it would mark the 250th anniversary of his death (Ring and box highlights of Nelson anniversary sale, page 36, September 25). If this was true, he would have died 47 years before the Battle of Trafalgar, where he was struck by a French sniper’s bullet and died on the first day of combat on October 21, 1805. Like Nelson, we had only one eye on the job.

I shared these corrections with Ian Mayes, the former readers’ editor of the Guardian and perhaps the greatest corrections writer of all time, and he agreed that they were excellent. He also granted my request to create the Ian Mayes Award for Writing Wrongs and present the first one to David Hummerston, the Saturday editor/editorial counsellor and readers’ editor of the West Australian, and the man responsible for those sublime corrections.

“Um, thanks,” he replied after I informed him of his win. “A sort of dubious honour really, isn’t it?”

No, David, you could have done much, much worse.

Correction of the Week

“The policewoman accused in a Newcastle upon Tyne court of being a pounds 100-an-hour prostitute is alleged to have had up to 20 clients a week, not 20 a day (Page 20, December 9).” – Daily Mirror (U.K.)

Lose the Comma, Lose the Meaning

“An editing change to Philip Hensher’s copy last week (‘My Other Life’, Books) resulted in: ‘I can see myself now in an alternative life as the fat lady who comes into the rehearsal room…’ whereas he wrote: ‘I can see myself now in an alternative life, as the fat lady comes into the rehearsal room …’ He was describing his fantasy career as an accompanist, not, of course, as an overweight soprano.
Our apologies.” – The Observer

Parting Shot

The name of home furnishings retailer Bed Bath & Beyond was misspelled as Bed Beth & Beyond in a Marketplace article Friday on retail liquidations. – Wall Street Journal