Saturday, December 22, 2007

Repeat the Error! Repeat It, Already!


The one part of my day night job that involves the entire Washington Post and not just national news is editing the corrections that appear on Page A2. Often that means rewriting the corrections, because there is a very specific style that is hard to master when you're not dealing with it every day. We use the date, not "yesterday" or the day of the week. We use "article" rather than "story," and we strive for economy by saying "a Dec. 20 Business article" rather than "an article in the Dec. 20 Business section" or some such. We say "incorrectly said" rather than "mistakenly reported" or "inadvertently stated" or "erroneously published." We don't say "in The Washington Post," because, well, why the heck would we be correcting something from some other publication?

But that's all just style. As for substance, the most frequent cause for a rewrite is the mistaken idea that we never want to "repeat the error." For many publications, "do not repeat the error" is canon, and for many years that was the case at my newspaper. We reversed that policy several years ago, but it seems that not everybody got the memo.

A don't-repeat-the-error correction reads something like this:
A Dec. 20 Metro article misstated the circumstances of Montgomery County police's arrest of Harvey Baxter of Rockville. He was charged with speeding.
Not exactly forthcoming about the error that was published, is it? Especially if, entirely hypothetically, an honest correction might read something like this:
A Dec. 20 Metro article incorrectly said that Montgomery County police arrested Harvey Baxter of Rockville after a two-hour chase and a bloody shootout and charged him with murdering his grandmother. No such chase or gunfight occurred, and he was charged with speeding.
That's an extreme and entirely hypothetical example that would have involved some major libel; often the issue isn't so much righting a wrong against someone as it is simple clarity. To be clearly understood, a correction must clearly state what was wrong in addition to clearly stating the true version of events.

There are always exceptions, of course. If the newsroom tabby dozes off on the 7 key and nobody notices, it might be just fine to say that somebody is actually 77 years old without adding that you incorrectly said he was 7,777,777,777,777,777,777.

5 comments:

Blork said...

Bill, on the topic of errors, are you familiar with "Regret the Error," Craig Silverman's blog (and subsequent book) on the topic of newspaper errors and error reporting? It's an interesting read; good for a laugh, and then some if you're so inclined. You might even find some of your work in there. ;-)

ptotheatsign said...

As a reader, don't-repeat-the-error corrections are boring to read and usually meaningless because they're so out of context. And Regret the Error wouldn't be as fun for me to read if it weren't for papers like the Post. (Er, I mean that in a good way.)

Bill said...

Yep, I almost mentioned the "Regret the Error" site. There's also a book from a few years back called "Kill Duck Before Serving" -- a hilarious compilation of corrections from (and by) the New York Times.

MuPu said...

"Repeat the Error" can be an embarrassing policy for newspapers like my local Laramie Boomerang. (Yeah, yeah. The customer picks it up off the porch, and chucks it back at the carrier.)

This is the paper that took a story about a child getting shot and wrapped it around an ad for a gun show.

This is the paper that labeled a corpulent guy's position in a photo as "fat right."

This is the paper that printed an obituary photo with the caption "mug shot."

This is the paper that often erroneously prints things that aren't fit to print. I'm all for "Repeat the Error." Just not in my back yard (where the paper sometimes lands).

Lacey said...

I recall from my media law class that in California, if a newspaper is alerted to a libelous error, they must print a correction without republishing the libelous statement.