Small errors can turn into bigger ones later

Readers often remind me that one of the journalist’s biggest responsibilities is not to repeat information in error, even if “everybody” gets it wrong.

“You set an example for our kids, so you can’t feed them nonsense before they grow up and run the world,” as one caller put it last week. So I’m always on the lookout for those nuggets of received wisdom that aren’t really so wise after all.

Readers keep my inbox and phone lines busy with all sorts of topics they think The Kansas City Star should investigate, and a lot of those suggestions lead to good news stories.

But some of them don’t check out. Occasionally, I’ll hear a tale that just doesn’t pass the initial smell test. Maybe it’s a story that just seems too pat and tidy, like a list of books Sarah Palin supposedly banned as governor of Alaska, or warnings that a town in China changed its name to “Usa” so that products manufactured there could be truthfully labeled “MADE IN USA.”

I often refer readers to, a website that catalogues these bits of information and actually does the legwork to track down whether they’re true. It’s an excellent resource — and one I think everyone should consult before forwarding that shocking e-mail that seems too important not to be on the front page of every newspaper.

On the other hand, there are many examples of “common knowledge” that aren’t really quite so true. The old rhyme notwithstanding, a jury found that Lizzie Borden didn’t kill anyone with an ax, and England’s Richard III was physically deformed only in the imaginations of Thomas More and William Shakespeare.

That’s why I was intrigued when Shannon Glasford contacted me about a wire item May 23 that said the Roman Catholic Church had condemned the findings of Nicolas Copernicus heretical: “Although there may have been a number of bishops who in council called the theory heretical, the church as a whole never made such a claim.”

Could such an historical “given” in fact be a giant misconception? Some standard reference works I consulted, such as Encyclopedia Britannica, supported the AP account, but others were vague regarding the church’s overall response.

For a bit more clarity, I consulted Father Pat Rush of Visitation Catholic Church, who provided valuable insight. Father Rush pointed out it was actually Galileo Galilei who pressed the issue of heliocentrism by directly challenging scripture — though his work was based on Copernicus’.

So was the news item worth a correction? While perhaps imprecise in an arcane sense, Father Rush and I agreed that the distinction is probably too small for the generalist newspaper audience.

Still, I appreciate Glasford’s laudable attention to detail. After all, small errors can snowball into myth down the line.

This column was originally published in the  Kansas City Star on June 12, 2010.

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