We take mistakes in the newspaper seriously

Not long ago, Deputy Managing Editor Daryl Kannberg had one of those delicious moments that occasionally bless our lives.

Kannberg, who selects and oversees Page One story choices and manages the copy editors, received a blistering e-mail from one of our readers that criticized the number of mistakes in The Plain Dealer. The reader sarcastically offered to “come down there myself and edit you’re stories.”

Nice guy that he is, Kannberg didn’t write back to ridicule the fellow’s misuse of the word “you’re.” He simply savored the moment for a bit, then returned to his work.

I recount that story here to give you a smile, not to belittle our erstwhile expert. The reality is that readers should expect us to be error-free, and should call us on it when we’re not. But this does illustrate how easy it is for even the most confident and competent people to make embarrassing mistakes.

The difference, of course, comes in scale: Kannberg’s correspondent made his blunder in the shelter of a two-way e-mail conversation. Any errors we make are laid out there for hundreds of thousands of readers to see. So they are exponentially more humiliating, and it is up to us to take steps to see that they don’t happen.

The ongoing battle for accuracy that rages in every newsroom is marked by two conflicting verities:

1. Errors are never OK.

2. Errors are inevitable.

It is simply impossible, given the amount of information we gather for the number of stories that go through the many hands in the brief amount of time we have to put out a daily newspaper (whew!), to get everything perfect every day.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t — and don’t — try.

The first and most important thing we do in the war against errors is to correct them. Nearly every error that’s brought to our attention, or that we discover ourselves, gets a published correction as soon as possible.

Then editors, reporters and others try to worry these mistakes to death. We count them, categorize them, try to root out their source, adjust procedures and add more eyes to each step along the way toward publishing.

The Internet age has both increased the likelihood that errors will be made (as we rush to post breaking news stories on cleveland.com) and the speed with which they can be corrected (we can fix them online immediately).

I should point out that “errors” and “corrections” are not the same thing. I used the word “nearly” above. We do not try to correct things like typographical errors or other misspellings (except in names) or grammatical mistakes. Not that those are inconsequential, but trying to correct them in following days would serve little purpose. The important thing is to set the record straight on errors of fact or interpretation.

Kannberg, who is the point man in the battle against errors, can tell you how many corrections we published last year (349); what was the most frequent problem (wrong name or title, 15 percent); which part of the paper produced the most corrections (stories and briefs, 67 percent); and the origins of our errors (reporting, 55 percent).

“We tabulate mistakes to look for patterns and problem areas so we can try to correct them,” said Kannberg. “Also, we’re revising how we proof pages, we’re assigning more eyeballs to look at things like the lottery, we resumed a weekly grammar memo to generate more conversation about grammar and editing, and a host of other things, big and small.”

That number of corrections noted above is down considerably from the recent past. In 2007, we published 615 corrections; in 2008, we had 502. Thus far this year, we have published only 85 through last Thursday.

The drop-off could mean one of two things: That we are winning the battle against errors, or that we aren’t finding and correcting errors with the same vigor that we have in the past. Some of us suspect the latter.

To that end, Editor Susan Goldberg has asked John Kroll, our director of training and digital development, to lead a series of ongoing training sessions to ratchet up the ongoing battle.

“There is nothing more important to us than our credibility with readers, whether in print or online,” said Goldberg. “And credibility is even more important at a time when people are snowed under with information — some good, but some from dubious sources.

“That’s why we can never give up the battle against errors, even though they’re always part of our business. What’s so vexing is that we tend to make the same kinds over and over again. They largely fall in the category of basic human error — problems caused by rushing, or sloppy typing, or thinking we remember a fact when we really don’t.”

Kroll is as much an expert about this as any of us, having made his share of embarrassing mistakes as a reporter, and dealt with trying to stop them as an editor. He doesn’t pretend to have a magic wand to wave in this fight, but vows to get conversations going and heighten our focus.

“Most of our errors are basic and preventable,” he said. “In most cases, it comes down to things like not checking facts thoroughly enough, or getting in a hurry. I think the best thing to do is talk to each other, share ideas about how we do our fact-checking, and learn from people who are the most successful at keeping errors out of their stories.”

Anyone who reads a newspaper knows that mistakes do happen. I think it’s good to occasionally acknowledge that we know it, too, and to let you know how we try to prevent them. And also, to invite you to be part of the fray. When you see us make a mistake, don’t be shy. Let me — or someone else — know.

To that end, we’ll check in with Kroll and Kannberg in a few weeks and let you know how goes the fight.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on April 25, 2010.

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