What really annoys readers

‘Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything,” said laconic lawman Wyatt Earp, blowing the smoke off his Colt .45 after the gunfight at the OK Corral. Newspapers, often accused of shooting from the hip in their desire to be first with the latest, could do worse than adopt that motto, judging from my daily correspondence.

An unscientific survey of a year’s complaints to what I might grandly call the readers’ editor’s office (it’s just a desk, but a chap can always dream) reveals some 4,300 email exchanges, 100 snail-mail letters and an unlogged number of phone calls.

An analysis of the emails alone shows 1,247 individual cases that required action between April 2010 and April 2011. Some were handled in minutes while others took weeks of careful investigation and negotiation to resolve. Most illustrated a passionate readership that feels it has a stake in the Observer and a desire that we should get the story right.

Of those cases, by far the largest number, 818 (66%), concerned accuracy. Many were irritating errors that were simple to correct online but were also entirely avoidable. It’s never been easier to check simple facts and while we should always be wary of what we find on the internet, it’s usually possible to triple-source the basics.

For example, it sometimes feels as though the entire staff has a clinical aversion to geography; we confused two huge national parks in South Africa, 400 kilometres apart, made the Nile flow backwards, placed Bungay in the Midlands and moved Skegness to Norfolk. Maths isn’t our strong point, either. We predicted privately educated pupils would gain three times as many A* grades at A-level as state school pupils when we meant they were three times more likely to gain an A* grade. Apparently, in a return to fashion, just 630 metres of Harris tweed were sold in 2010 – we meant 630,000. We also confused micrograms with milligrams, barrels with gallons and the GDP of Italy with the very different GDP of Germany.

Eleven per cent of cases (136) concerned misrepresentation, either of individuals or causes. Here’s an example. Last September, the front page said: “One of Britain’s most senior police officers has proposed decriminalising the personal use of drugs such as cannabis to allow more resources to be dedicated to tackling high-level dealers.” We then had to clarify that neither Tim Hollis, chief constable of Humberside police, nor the Association of Chief Police Officers was calling for the legalisation of cannabis. Rather, in seeking to open a debate around the harm caused by illicit drugs and the role of the police, Hollis believed that young people caught carrying personal amounts of drugs such as cannabis should not necessarily be criminalised.

Foreign reporting often attracts accusations of misrepresentation from citizens of the featured country. These almost always have to be handled with care. Last week’s coverage of the growing unrest in Bahrain, for example, drew a predictable batch of emails from Bahrainis claiming not to recognise the picture we painted of an oppressive regime cracking down on dissent.

A further 101 (8%) accused the paper of failing to be fair to both sides of a story (a letter for publication would sometimes result) and 70 (5.6%) took issue with what they perceived to be bias in the Observer‘s political coverage. The paper was still settling into its latest incarnation at the start of the survey, so it’s understandable that 63 emails (5.1%) were preoccupied with the layout and design of the “new” paper and mourned the loss of the separate travel and business sections and three of the monthly magazines.

Naturally, some complaints fall outside all of the above headings and are just plain angry. Those points are usually beyond correction and require a column to air the point fully. Topics have included the paper’s use of profanity, its approach to transgender issues and the editing safety net that keeps our writers’ wilder flights of fancy out of the paper.

But still a blissfully surreal phrase will occasionally slip through. I think my favourite correction from the past 12 months apologised for the paper praising a whisky as “a genuine classic which never fails to disappoint” – so wrong it looks right.

Let’s leave the last word on accuracy to another American, Adlai Stevenson. “Accuracy to a newspaper is what virtue is to a lady; but a newspaper can always print a retraction.”

This column was originally published in The Observer on April 24, 2011.

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