As errors grow, so does a credibility gap

A single major error can damage a news organization. But incessant lesser ones can be more harmful. Like a cancer, they gradually destroy credibility and eventually sever the organization’s bond of trust with its audience.

Many readers say that’s happening with The Post. This summer, and especially over the past month, there has been a spike in complaints about inexcusable “little” mistakes.

The problem isn’t new. Two ombudsman columns in the past year have noted increased complaints that mostly involved typos and grammatical errors. But more recently, scores of readers have also complained about obvious factual errors that should have been easy to catch.

Last week, for instance, a Metro section story reported that a mother had “received a 30-day sentence” after being convicted of felony child-neglect. But readers were left scratching their heads because the caption with an accompanying photo of the woman erroneously said she received a suspended three-year sentence.

And there are other recent examples. Last weekend, a chart with a story about New Orleans put its metropolitan area population at 1.2 billion (instead of million). A Sunday Sports section story and photo caption said swimmer Michael Phelps had recently finished 11 seconds faster than his best time in an event (it was actually 11 seconds slower). Another story referred to the Veterans Administration, which was replaced by the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs more than two decades ago.

Many complaints involve mistakes online, where editing sometimes seems minimal. Several readers have said inaccurate information has remained even after they alerted writers or the Web site.

Readers care about accuracy. Even mistakes not related to facts, like improper grammar, erode their confidence in The Post’s journalism.

“Small mistakes can often be a symptom of a larger problem,” wrote Trena Taylor of Cary, N.C., “and they diminish the prestige of the paper overall, and confidence in the individual articles.”

Last weekend, Carol Cole of Vienna e-mailed with a list of factual mistakes (some since corrected). “Lately, it’s almost become comical trying to read through all the errors and mistakes in the paper,” complained Cole, who said she and her husband have been Post subscribers for 31 years.

The next day she e-mailed again, noting that a teaser to an inside-page story on the front of the Sunday Business section had referred readers to the wrong page. “This may be a small error,” she wrote. “But these accumulate, leaving readers like me wondering if anyone is paying attention to the final product anymore.”

Many readers raised that question recently over this front-page headline about the devastating floods in Pakistan: “For Pakistanis, the worse may be still to come.” The headline made it past about a half-dozen editors, including newsroom leaders who are e-mailed a front-page mock-up before deadline each night. No one detected that “worse” should be “worst,” even though the story’s third paragraph said “the worst may be still to come.”

Anne Ferguson-Rohrer, a top Post production editor, blamed reduced staffing and the distraction of implementing a new and complex computerized content management system for producing The Post in print and online. Although not a factual mistake, the error proved embarrassing. “Clearly, it should have been caught,” she acknowledged.

Reduced staffing because of summer vacations may be contributing to the problem. And installing the new system is surely a factor. But a prime cause of increased mistakes is The Post’s necessary cost-cutting that has resulted in far fewer people being pressed to do much more. The ranks of The Post’s full-time copy editors have been reduced by roughly half since 2005. Many who remain are among the best in the business. But even with the help of part-timers, their dramatically expanded online duties have stretched them thin.

It’s an industrywide problem. Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, predicts more burnout. “There’s only so long you can work in complete and utter chaos and keep your energy level up,” said Schmedding, who is with the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.

There are few easy fixes. Reporters and other content originators can help by ensuring accuracy from the outset. But if this error-prone process is the new normal, it’s testing the loyalty of readers at a time when The Post desperately needs them.

“I love this paper,” said Tyson Ackermann of Anne Arundel County, who wrote to complain about mistakes in an online story. “But I have never seen such sloppiness.

“I believe that The Post is one of the most important institutions of its time,” said Ackermann, adding that he is “fearful of a powerful voice in this country losing credibility.”

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on August 29, 2010.

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