To repeat or not to repeat?

It’s a simple question, yet it has vexed editors and correction writers for decades. Is it nobler to restate the error in a correction, or to offer a basic description of the mistake?

Derek Donovan, the reader’s editor of the Kansas City Star, adheres to a policy that proscribes restating the error in a correction. In a recent blog post, he offered a hypothetical scenario:

For example, let’s say a story refers to Jamie Smith, but she really spells her name Jamie Smyth. The correction should not say: A story in the Nov. 26 Local section misspelled Jamie Smyth’s last name as Smith.

That’s a bad idea because it puts the mistake in the paper a second time. Better simply to write: A story in the Nov. 26 Local section misspelled Jamie Smyth’s last name.

The goal of not stating the error is to prevent the paper from compounding the offense. It’s similar to the policy of not repeating a libelous statement.

On the other side of the divide, The New York Times always restates the error. In 1993, Max Frankel, the paper’s executive editor, explained the proper way to correct a factual error:

We say Mickey Mantle was a rookie in 1951, not 1953. Good enough, if that was just a random statistic. But if the original article said he played for 15 years, we should now say he actually played for 17. Or if it said he came up the same year as Whitey Ford, we should now say that, too, was wrong.

That memo excerpt was included in Allan M. Siegal’s introduction to Kill Duck Before Serving, the collection of Times corrections. Siegal, the eminent former standards editor, addressed the issue of error repetition.

Editors once feared that if the specifics of an error were detailed in a correction, the repetition would somehow heighten the damage. They have come to understand that readers want to know just how wide of the mark the story fell, and how the misstep affected the wider point.

The desire to avoid repeating an error is understandable, but identifying the mistake can help people understand the nature of the original error. Not repeating the error can raise questions in the reader’s mind. Siegal is also right that readers expect a full accounting of the mistake.

The “don’t repeat the error” dance performed by some papers often results in maddeningly vague corrections, such as this 2005 example from The Times (U.K.):

Nine of the 366 firefighters with the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service are women and not as we reported (May 21).

I also fear that this policy opens the door to useless corrections, like this May 2008 offering from the London Free Press (Canada):

A photograph of Gary Kerhoulas incorrectly appeared in yesterday’s Business section. The Free Press regrets the error.

Then again, some would argue that an apology last week from British tabloid The Sun would have done a better job of repairing the damage if the writer had chosen to omit her nasty allegations:

IN my column on August 22 I suggested that Sharon Osbourne was an unemployed, drugaddled, unfit mum with a litter of feral kids. This was not intended to be taken literally. I fully accept she is none of these things and sincerely apologise to Sharon and her family for my unacceptable comments. Sorry Sharon…

Unacceptable, yes. Worth repeating?

Almost always.

Correction of the Week

“During the editing of this Review of the Week by Richard Smith (BMJ 2008;337:a2719,doi:10.1136/bmj.a2719), the author’s term “pisshouse” was changed to “pub” in the sentence: “Then, in true British and male style, Hammond met Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, in the pub and did a deal.” However, a pisshouse is apparently a gentleman’s toilet, and (in the author’s social circle at least) the phrase “pisshouse deal” is well known. (It alludes to the tendency of men to make deals while standing side by side and urinating.) In the more genteel confines of the BMJ Editorial Office, however, this term was unknown and a mistake was made in translating it into more standard English. We apologise for any misunderstanding this may have caused.” – British Medical Journal

Off On a Few Points

“A headline on Page 2 of Wednesday’s Local & State section incorrectly reported that a 4-year-old girl had been thrown from a truck. The girl was riding in a car, not a truck; her father was thrown from the vehicle, but she was not. Their car collided with a pickup.” – Fresno Bee

Parting Shot

“No, computers aren’t regarded in the chess world as the “silicone monster” that can beat the world’s best players and thus presents the potential for cheating at top-level chess matches. The phrase uttered by international chess referee Hal Bond of Guelph, which was used in a story in Tuesday’s Trib, was actually “silicon monster.” Silicon is a chemical element with semiconducting properties, used in making electronic circuits. Silicone is a durable synthetic resin, used for sealing cracks and sometimes for breast implants. We goofed. We’re sorry.” – Guelph Tribune

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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.