Corrections: Moving from Phobia to a Healthy Fear

New York Times corrections
Even The New York Times gets it wrong sometimes.

There are certain email subject lines reporters hate to see, and one that suggests your day is about to get a lot worse:


You open that email, and inside is some notification of an error, sometimes coupled with an admonishment about your lack of moral character. If the reader is right, you generally have to go through with some kind of correction. Readers notice errors, consciously or unconsciously, and will eventually discard sources that make too many of them. If you don’t get it right the first time, the least you can do is let them know it’s corrected the next time they come to the website, the paper, whatever it is.

Corrections can become career-killers. Be responsible for too many of them and you’re not worrying anymore about subtleties of phrasing. You are looking for a nice tree in the woods with a low branch over which to loop a tarp, because that’s where you’re sleeping.

If you think because you don’t work in print you don’t have to panic about errors, I disagree.

Suppose you target your art opening for Saturday, Sept. 15.  You’ve come up with an arresting title, decorated flyers with just enough information and humor to set the hook.
There’s just one problem: the 15th is a Sunday. And even though you can undo everything that wasn’t printed, it’s a hassle and it’s weakened your brand, because now you’re apologizing while still trying to draw eyes to your event.

A few years ago, I had problems with errors. Some might seem minor—if you’re not the one being written about. I misspelled a few names. Once I said an obscure character in a story worked for Hershey’s a long time before, when in fact he had worked for Nestle. Others were more significant.

Corrections have always been humorous fodder for others in the media.

A “Dear Abby” column once had to clarify that a boy’s hiccups were in fact cured by carbon dioxide—not, as originally reported, by carbon monoxide.

An article in US Magazine mistakenly had former child actor Danielle Brisebois saying about her training, “You have to know how to run, you have to be in shape, you have to know how to do sex acts” when she actually said, “You have to know how to run, you have to be in shape, you have to know how to do circus acts.”

The Poynter Institute published a December 2012 year-in-review list of whoppers. Among them were a New York Times correction noting that Gore Vidal had actually referred to William F. Buckley as a “crypto-nazi,” not a “crypto-fascist,” and a Vogue magazine apology for identifying Interior Secretary of State Dan Baer as an interior designer.

A certain concern for errors is obviously healthy. You don’t want put out stuff that’s wrong.

Too much concern, however, can lead to a phobia about mistake-making.

Though people use the term “perfectionism” as a synonym for having high standards, it has an actual psychological diagnosis that has been linked to depression, OCD and other stresses.

Though I don’t know if there is any research to confirm this, I contend that suffering a phobia about making mistakes will increase your chances of making them. During the worst year I had with errors, I started looking at stories with such a microscopic lens, I nearly missed obvious discrepancies staring me in the face.

The most prominent example of this tendency is an obituary I did on Danny Litwhiler, a former major league baseball player. After leaving baseball, Litwhiler conceptualized the radar gun that measures the speed of a pitch. Between, he coached college baseball.

Well, I was consumed with his team affiliations in the 1940s: the Philadelphia Phillies, starting in 1940; traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1943; a member of the Cardinals championship team in 1944….

I was pushing deadline, then blowing past it studying baseball almanacs. Just one confirmation wasn’t enough. I needed two or three.

Then I talked about his time coaching college baseball. I said he coached at Michigan State, “where he would remain for 19 years and lead the Wolverines to two Big Ten championships.”

The only problem with that, of course, is that Michigan State calls their players the Spartans. Wolverine, actually, refers to Michigan, their archrival. I was able to fix the error before press, but it was a close call. In bending over backwards to avoid an email from a baseball statistics savant, I nearly made the equivalent of writing about the “Boston Yankees” or the “Florida State Gators.”

I started a file called “Corrections Avoidance.” It got full, hard to read and repetitive. I don’t think I even have that file anymore, but somehow my error rate went dramatically down a couple of years ago. It has stayed that way.

I suspect that’s due a little to specific practices I adopted, which led to more confidence and less energy-sapping paranoia.

Here are some tips and practices that have helped me.

One of the biggest dangers lies in names.

If I am typing a story fast, I find it’s easy enough to get a difficult name spelled correctly the first time. Really difficult names are the easiest to spell because your guard is up.

But just to make sure I write it the same way every time, I type the first letter of the names I am going to use a lot, followed by “X.” Thus, “Ricottilli” becomes RX, “Gyllenhaal” is GX, and  “Mahershalalhashbaz Ali” will be MX Ali. (I appreciate that hardly any names, other than those that start with vowels, have “x” for a second letter.)

Then when I am nearly finished, I let the computer replace all instances of RX with “Ricottilli,” and so on.

Dates are another biggie.

It’s easy to get a date right and mislabel the day of the week. If you’re printing information someone else gave you, be sure to check a calendar. They might tell you their event is on Tuesday, Sept. 25—a Wednesday.

As for facts alleged, I divide potential enemies into two categories: things you’re not sure of, and things you think are safe.

One way to save considerable angst: Avoid referring to anyone as “the first” anything. Unless you have rigorously challenged yourself and survived, just don’t say it. If you can document someone as “the first” and there is an important qualifier—XYZ was the first local sculptor to win the Mayberry Arts Festival since the show began accepting entries from the Southeastern United States—be sure to add it.

Numbers are also easy to get wrong.

Sometimes it’s the work of typos (a copy editor once messaged me about a subject I said had been born in 1021—“I knew he was old, but not that old”); sometimes it’s just arithmetic. Respect your propensity for the kind of mistakes you think you’re too smart to make. Develop systems that work for you.

For me, it’s writing like: “Mr. SX [Swindall] died Oct. 10, 2013. He was 75 [he would be 76 in October, and it’s not October yet].”

Setting up foolproof systems diminishes fear, which in the long run reduces mistakes. Good luck.

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