Just before the holiday, I called up Craig Silverman to talk about mistakes. Silverman, a 31-year-old Canadian journalist, has made quite a name for himself by documenting the errors that print publishers make and how and whether they correct them. I recorded the 40-minute phone call and you can listen to it here.
Error-spotting seems an odd avocation, but that’s what makes RegretTheError.com so notable. Before Craig Silverman came along and started doing this in 2004, nobody else was paying attention. On the day he launched RegretTheError in October of that year, “Thousands of people showed up. I didn’t expect the site would catch on as quickly as it did.”
Silverman spends an hour or two a day scanning the Nexis online news database and an assortment of corrections pages at notable journals. He’s selective in what he pulls out for the blog, though. “I see hundreds of corrections a day and post maybe five,” he says. His selections are often funny, extreme or illustrative of a common mistake.
Because of an editor’s error, a photograph of Neil Diamond was incorrectly used in a review of Neil Young at the DCU Center in Worcester in Monday’s Telegram & Gazette – Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Dec. 19.
RegretTheError has changed Silverman’s career. He’s written a book on the topic (the website of which features a corrections page) and just finished co-authoring a second one on an unrelated topic called Mafiaboy. It’s due to be released in the US in 2009.
Craig Silverman just wants to help. He has resisted the temptation to make RegretTheError’s tone mocking or rude. “It would be easy to be mean and nasty, but people don’t want to read that,” he told me. The voice is “helpful, constructive with a little bit of a sense of humor.” As a result, reaction among journalists has been unanimously positive. “There hasn’t been a word of negativity,” he said. As a result, many of the major news organizations in North America have contacted him for help in improving their own corrections policies or in formulating new ones to accommodate the flood of new information being posted on their own blogs or submitted by readers.
The vast majority of errors in newspapers and magazines are never corrected or even reported. Research has established that about 80% of published articles contain errors, but most aren’t fixed because they either aren’t worth reporting or journals fail to make it easy for readers to report them.
It’s the latter problem that rubs Silverman raw. “We’re failing in our contract to do our best as journalists,” he said, citing a recent University of Oregon study that found that only about 2% of newspaper errors are corrected. “In our newsrooms, we often don’t have a culture of wanting to get errors corrected. People keep their mouths shut because they don’t want to get in trouble.”
“In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.” – Miami Herald, Aug. 19.
Is the problem getting worse? Because of all the recent layoffs, “We’re in a pretty low period right now,” he said. “At a certain point we’re not going to be able to do even the base level of control we did before.” Part of the problem is that quality control systems are rooted in an old paradigm in which reporters and editors have been separated from their readers. Because readers spot the vast majority of errors, this disconnect has prevented most from being reported.
Publishers could improve their overall level of fact-checking if they involved readers in the process, perhaps by rewarding them for good error-spotting. However, most publishers resist having their flaws highlighted in this way. “Instead of creating a better process, we’re decimating the one we already have,” Silverman said.
Some media are innovating. The website Slate, for example, notes original errors in links from the corrected passages. Reuters maintains a blog called Good, Bad, and Ugly that documents its own gaffes. However, the sheer volume of information being reported online is challenging conventional remediation tactics.
One new problem is the difficulty of incorporating consumer-generated reporting into mainstream media content on a timely basis while still checking important facts. In October, Apple Computer stock fell more than 5% because of news on CNN’s ireport.com that CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. The New York Times documented this and other transgressions in an article titled Spinning a Web of Lies at Digital Speed.
However, even as the Web has helped to spread falsehood, it has also helped to perpetuate an unprecedented level of accountability. Silverman noted that the journalists who broke the Watergate story in 1973 actually made a few significant errors along the way. Had the Washington Post been subject to the level of scrutiny that newspapers receive today from political bloggers, it’s possible that Woodward and Bernstein would never have been able to overcome such mistakes and break the biggest story of the last 50 years.
“In our November 3 issue, we suggested that the actress Kelly Reilly was having a relationship with Guy Ritchie. It is now clear from the further information that we have received that Ms. Reilly is engaged and there is and has been no romantic relationship between Kelly Reilly and Guy Ritchie. We apologize for any embarrassment caused to Ms. Reilly in our original report.” – Us, Nov. 12.
I asked Silverman what were his favorite errors of the last four years. There are too many candidates to choose just one, he said, but a favorite is this year’s front page from New Hampshire’s Valley News, in which the paper misspelled its own name in the logo. He also likes this year’s Associated Press gaffe in which the news service described Senator Joseph Lieberman as a former “Democratic vice-presidential prick.”
Spell checkers can actually be part of the problem. As useful as these error-correcting programs are, they can run rampant when allowed to operate, er, unchecked. Two years ago, a spell-checker replaced a reference to “queen bee” with the name of the British monarch, enabling led Reuters to report that “Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day.” Just this week, a spell-checker at the Canadian Press changed the name of Supreme Court judge Michel Bastarache to “Michel Bastard.”
There are thousands of examples like these at RegretTheError, and thanks to Craig Silverman, the journalism profession has someone to identify and report them.
Listen to the interview:
This entry was posted on Monday, December 29th, 2008 at 8:00 am and is filed under Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers, OnlineMedia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.