behind the news

Michael Kinsley vs. Factual Accuracy

WaPo columnist slams the Times's "schoolmarmish" corrections column
September 4, 2009

In an op-ed published in today’s Washington Post criticizing The New York Times‘s published corrections, columnist Michael Kinsley officially went off the deep end. He argues that publications should not worry about spelling names right or correctly identifying landmarks simply because he finds reading corrections boring. It is within a tenured columnist’s rights to dismiss journalistic rigor, but couldn’t he find a less self-indulgent reason for doing so?

“Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily “Corrections” column in the New York Times?” Kinsley asks. “Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times’s rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.”

He then ticks off a litany of corrections published in the Times: Wrongly identifying the first name of the brother of the Ecuadorian president, incorrectly calling the College of William and Mary “William and Mary College,” referring to a publisher named PublicAffairs as “Public Affairs” and misidentifying a company named Voxox as “Vovox.”

Why must these tedious details be corrected, Kinsley complains. “[W]ho are these people who give their companies impossible names like Voxox or PublicAffairs and then get upset and demand a correction when a newspaper gets it wrong?… Why don’t these people change the names of their institutions to something sensible like Vovox or William and Mary College, and then move on?”

Of course, it’s no skin off his back—or mine, for that matter—for a newspaper to get these small details wrong. But for a company with a contrived name like Voxox, which probably spent ridiculous hours agonizing about its name and may even have hired a branding consultant, that’s money down the tube. And in a world where Web addresses are crucial ways for potential customers to find businesses, a single-letter error could literally cost a business millions.

In a breathtaking display of arrogance from someone with such an influential platform on the Post‘s opinion page, Kinsley seems to have forgotten that newspapers have real power over the lives of the subjects they cover. I suppose after a long career, information can start to seem like props for feats of intellect, but they have consequences for the real people whose lives are mined for raw material. When mistakes are made in a story, often a correction published inconspicuously does little to fix the damage.

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My first memory of a printed error comes from when I was in high school, after one of my friends was killed in a car accident that was extensively covered by Kinsley’s newspaper. In the days following the accident, The Washington Post mistakenly published a yearbook photo of the wrong member of our class and identified him as the victim. Now, the yearbook may have been confusingly laid out, and the photo was probably one of dozens the Post’s photo editor was handling that day. The mistake was perhaps understandable, and if you were not close to anyone involved, it was probably trivial. If you were friends with the dead boy, or the living one whose death was incorrectly announced in the city’s major paper, it definitely mattered.

As a reporter, I have made mistakes—some of which I find trivial—and I am frustrated that I’m far more likely to hear about a misspelled name from my colleagues and friends than I am to have someone engage with the substance of what I wrote. But just because small mistakes are an inevitable occupational hazard and it’s tiresome to be reminded of our shortcomings, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have an obligation to always try to do our best and correct mistakes when they occur. Analytical sophistication and rhetorical force may be more important skills for a good journalist than perfect recall for picayune details or being a good speller (as a dyslexic, I certainly think so), but that doesn’t mean accuracy and spelling aren’t also important. And while running a correction is insufficient in some cases of error, for facts that are truly incidental, a corrections column is not a bad solution. If Kinsley finds it tedious to read, he can do what most readers do: ignore it.

Burried beneath his cantankerousness, Kinsley seems to be groping towards a legitimate and important point: factoids are sometimes fetishized while publications are lax in ensuring their writers get the substance of a story correct. If that was his point, I hope he will set the example by using his next column to correct this one—he may have gotten his “facts” right, but his main argument is just self-important whining.

Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.