Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fixed on fixin'

See addition (in bold faced italic type) to article a few inches down.....
Last night I spent nearly three hours reading my new favorite website - regrettheerror.com. For a journalist this is a must read. The author has assembled and catalogued the major mistakes, plagarists and fabrications for the past four years.

It's a great site and I again commend it to your reading.
Reading three hours of sad stories of journalists who cheated and humorous tidbits of newspaper mistakes brought to mind the continuing effort at my former paper to eradicate the "correction."
For the record, I'm very much for improving the accuracy of newspapers, but the Journal's efforts are sometimes laughable.

Just this past Sunday (Feb. 24), again, the Journal editor wrung his hands publicly in his column and told his readers how hard the paper was working to eliminate mistakes. Heck, when I was there he offered a semi-annual drawing for a $20 gas card among reporters who had gone six months without having to post a correction.

At the meeting where this "carrot" was announced I told him I thought the offer was demeaning and that any good journalist should avoid mistakes out of professional pride and that vying for a $20 gas card was insulting. But the offer remained and the only winners (so far) have been a woman who compiles the wedding announcements and a graphic page designer. Now that's really fair! You take people who handled pre-written copy into the mix of reporters dealing with complicated interviews, facts, figures and working under deadling and consider them equals.

Whenever there is a carrot there is also a stick. To fend off mistakes, the paper required detailed memos of how the mistake was made, the requirement of an apology letter to the person the mistake was about (if applicable). So far they haven't made a reporter write a letter to Third Avenue apologizing for calling it a street). Anyway, the paper had a vigorous program to stop corrections and punish offenders.

With no consideration for the complexity of beats, the number of stories produced or hours worked, a quota of four mistakes per year were the drop dead limit with a threat of discipline and firing if additional corrections were tallied. Some reporters were told that they were on the brink of dismissal if they had any more corrections. What do you think that does to the incentive of admitting a mistake?

I know for a fact that some reporters deliberately deflected requests for corrections ("I'll make sure I get it right next time") in order to avoid having to come under the correction program.
One of the duties of the managing editor is to keep a daily list of corrections. He keeps a daily chart of who has sent letters, who has sent their memo to him and the editor-in-chief. It's nice to know that someone has plenty of time on his hands.

Heck if the reporters had that kind of time to do a story, that would go a longer way to eliminating the need for a $20 gas card incentive.

But let's talk about a correction that was not reported. Last year, an alert editor noted a disturbing trend among one reporter who in a matter of minutes could find a random citizen to comment on even the most obscure subject or event.

Suspicious, the editor attempted to locate any of his most recent sources for feature articles. None of them could be found through traditional means (phone books, etc.) Then she asked the reporter to produce the sources and he could not. The editor-in-chief confronted the reporter about a number of suspect fabricated sources in several stories and the reporter abruptly resigned rather than providing the sources.

And what did the Journal report to its readers about the fabricated sources?

Zero, zip, nada. No apology letters, no flogging, no nothing. Pass Go and collect your $20 gas card. So how serious are you really when you insist on correcting the little errors, but then cover up the biggest screw up of the year? Not very.

Update: A former Journal colleague, who is now gainfully employed elsewhere, points out that the strict Journal correction policy could certainly contribute to the temptation to make up a source. (The colleague is not excusing the behavior) "Afterall, fake sources rarely call to say they were misquoted," the colleague said. Point taken.

Here's a big suggestion to eliminate many mistakes: Quit treating the employees like factory line workers with set quotas for the number of stories they must produce each day and give them the time to work, massage and fact check a story.

When you push and hurry people, there is less time for follow-up and fact checking calls.

P.S. The Journal refuses to explain to readers how the mistakes were made. The editor-in-charge-of-corrections says that's because readers don't care. Well even if readers don't care, staff, particularly reporters care that sources know that they got it right and that the editor or copy desk inflicted the wound. Get over this idea that you can't explain to readers who was responsible for the error.

Here's a good example: I had a pretty good record of not making mistakes. But a source gave me an incorrect name for an auctioneer for a public auction. The source called and left a taped mea culpa on my voice mail. I mentioned this to the editor-in-charge-of-corrections and even sent him a copy of the taped message. But when the correction appeared it looked as if the paper had made the mistake, or more specifically that I had made the mistake. As any reporter will tell you that kind of thing is noticed by people on your beat and damages your credibility.

But the editor-in-charge-of-corrections explained that readers don't care. Well, reporters and sources do. To steal a page from the old Clinton playbook: "It's the morale, stupid."

By the way, reporters never got letters of apology from the editors who mangled copy and made it wrong. Although a few of my favorite copy editors were very polite and apologetic when they did make an error. Not so the editor-in-charge-of-corrections.

3 comments:

inky said...

One of the hardest things to do when you are an editor is to look a reporter in the face and admit that you edited an error into his or her story. The payoff is that when you do, not only will you have done the right thing, you will have that reporter's respect forever.

Jim of L-Town said...

Inky:

You are sooo right. No one is perfect. I worked for an editor for more than a dozen years who saved by behind way more than she ever hurt it.
The greatest trait that she had was that she would consult and talk to you before, during and after an edit.
When an editor collaborates with a reporter there is room for productive discussion and compromise. The end result is a winner for the newspaper and the readers.
Also, as you point out an apology goes a long way.

The Boston Monkey said...

Again, Jim's hit the nail on the head about the Journal's correction policy.
No journalist wants to make a mistake in a story -- I know I had hard time sleeping at night after I got something wrong in an article, and I think any conscientious reporter has to feel the same way.
But the Journal management response to mistakes with its ridiculous corrections policy is sort of like how your old third grade teacher dealt with you when you misbehaved. It's a kind of punishment aimed at embarrasing reporters, like having to write 50 times on the blackboard "I will not act up in class,"
That may have worked when you were 9, but reporters are adults.
The clown running the newsroom wants to know how reporting mistakes are made? How about brutally long hours (for which reporters are not paid)? How about exhaustion from having a nearly impossible assignment workload, since the Journal staff is a shadow of what it once was? Is that enough of an explanation? Might unrealistic demands for copy on daily deadlines with almost no one to do the work have something to do with the number of errors?
Instead the Journal take the old military approach: The beatings will continue until morale improves. Or the insulting approach: Hey, we'll have a drawing! Win a free gas card worth a 1/4 of a tank fill-up!
Insulting, yes, Also unrealistic. But then those in management think that bullying is management, or a that a chance at a prize is the way to reduce corrections. Of course, thinking people (read: reporters) find this belittling..
Mistakes are a part of human existence, there's no way an ever-diminishing number of reporters and editors at the Journal can put out hundreds of thousands of words on a daily basis and not make mistakes. Of course, a professional staff should strive to do better and improve, but the fact is until the world ends and every ascends to perfection, there are going to be mistakes, no matter what dumbass corrections policies the Journal editors put into effect in a ludicrous effort to wipe out mistakes.
On top of that, there's also the wonderful double standard wherein only reporters make mistakes, not editors. I can't tell you how many times reporters find things in their copy changed and made wrong. Good luck in getting the editors to admit that they did it. But the way the Journal writes corrections, it almost ALWAYS appears to be the reporters' fault, even if it was editors or copy editors who did it.
Let me leave you with an example of a real conversation between a Journal reporter and an editor -- we'll call him John -- from a few years back:
Reporter: "John, you changed my story and put a mistake into."
Editor: "Well, I didn't like your lead so I had to change it."
Reporter: "Yeah, well, you must not have liked the guy's name, either, because you changed that, too, and got it wrong."

The Boston Monkey