Erin Tandy
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Mr. Fix-It

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Freelance journalist and Globe and Mail columnist Craig Silverman spends his life tracking mistakes and missteps in the press. His new book, Regret the Error, highlights some of journalism's most egregious blunders. Review reporter Erin Tandy discusses what's so right about being Mr. Wrong

Craig Silverman

Courtesy of: Craig Silverman

Erin Tandy: What first got you interested in corrections?

Craig Silverman: There was one in particular that inspired me to look more into the topic. It’s the one listed in Regret the Error’s introduction, from the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2004, where they apologize for not covering the civil rights movement 40 years previously: “It has come to the editor’s attention that the Herald-Leader neglected to cover the civil rights movement. We regret the omission.”

I’d been thinking in the months before that about wanting to start a blog that was somehow media related. I hit upon the idea of corrections because they seemed to be something that worked really well for a blog: they’re short, they appear every single day and the larger issue is that nobody was really paying attention to corrections or accuracy on a daily basis. So it seemed like a good idea for a site, but also it seemed like it was an important idea — that it could actually add something to all of the many, many media-related blogs and websites that were out there. It seemed like it had something to offer that was new.

ET: When did you decide to expand the site into a book?

CS: It was relatively early on because the first day the site went online there were roughly 10,000 people who visited it. So I saw right away that people were interested in this — that it was something unique. I started having to spend more and more time on the website and the more time I spent, the deeper into the issue I got. I saw that there was a tremendous amount of important things related to accuracy and corrections that had never really been discussed before. It naturally started to seem like a book was the way to do that — to put it all together in a format that could potentially reach more people and be more of a serious take on the issue. Because obviously when the site first started I was just printing the best of the worst of corrections and apologies. I guess in early 2005 I started thinking about putting together a book proposal.

ET: How have other journalists reacted to both the site and the book?

CS: I was curious when it first launched to see what the reaction would be because certainly there was the potential for people to see it as something that was perhaps mocking journalism or only showing the worst of the profession. But I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised, and it speaks well for journalists. I haven’t had any negative reactions from any journalists about either the book or the website. It’s something that those of us in the profession do recognize as important in terms of accuracy and correcting our errors.

Overall, I would say that probably 70 to 80 per cent of the audience is working journalists. I even have journalists sending in corrections from their own paper or their own media outlets — although one of the most common things is that journalists will email me a correction from one of their competitor’s papers. But nobody has said it’s hurting the profession or anything like that. Most of us really do care about the issue, but the problem is that it’s a difficult thing to be obsessively focused on every single day, and that’s the way you have to be in order to attain a high level of accuracy. Hopefully, if people are visiting the site everyday, it makes them a little more accurate in the work they’re doing that particular day because they see what could go wrong.

ET: In your book, you talk about how errors and inaccuracies erode the trust of the readers and public. If we don’t make more commitments to accuracy and transparency, what do you think is going to happen?

CS: In today’s environment people have a tremendous number of options in terms of where they get their information. We’re living in an era where news is commoditized and people are going to go to the place they feel serves them best — both in terms of the kind of information they’re looking for, but also a place that they feel they can trust.

There’s a proven link between perceptions of credibility and financial health. It was shown in a study in the United States called “Trust and the Value of Advertising: A Test of the Influence Model,” which was conducted by University of North Carolina journalism professors Philip Meyer and Joe Bob Hester. Their research showed that a newspaper with a high credibility rating maintains readership better than a newspaper with a lower credibility rating. And, the newspaper with the higher credibility rating was able to charge more for its advertising than a similar newspaper with a lower credibility rating. There’s almost what you could call an accuracy or credibility premium. People will actually stop reading a newspaper if they feel that there’s no credibility in what’s provided.

ET: Ideally, how should the press deal with its errors?

CS: The fundamental thing, first of all, is every journalist, editor and organization should realize that errors are going to happen. It is the rule and not the exception. And they’re not only going to happen to the people who have less experience, or who are perceived as being less skilled than others in the newsroom; they’re going to happen to people who’ve been in the profession for 40 years.

So, to start, what are the things people can do to be more accurate? For an individual journalist, I recommend they use a checklist. I’m talking about a piece of paper that lists all of the different factual areas that are typically used in a news story. It tells people to check all the names and titles. Check all the numbers, whether it’s dates or statistics. When I say use a paper checklist some people roll their eyes, but they’re used in emergency trauma centres so physicians know exactly the process they should go through to help save a life. They’re used by airplane pilots when they’re starting up. They’re used in nuclear facilities for safety checks. The checklist is a simple, effective tool for individual journalists.

For an organization as a whole, a culture of accuracy has to be created. It has to be something that’s valued. Part of that is realizing that errors will happen. It’s also dedicating your resources to actually try to prevent them and track them. For example, the Toronto Star is about to unveil an error database. Every time there is a correction, the public editor is responsible for entering that into a database. How did the error happen? Who was responsible? What section was it in? All the details of it. Then, as you go through, you see the trends of what you’re getting wrong — you see the most common errors. And that becomes your road map to start introducing training programs — to start helping people avoid the common mistakes that happen in your particular organization.

Then there’s that cultural aspect, which is getting people within your organization to be passionate about the idea of accuracy, so that they take the extra five minutes before they send the story on to the next level to just do that quick check.

Frankly, I also think news organizations should be doing random checks for plagiarism using some of the detection services that are out there. And we should, on the editor level, be instituting random fact-checking before a story actually appears to help catch things and to show everyone, “Hey, your work might be checked. So spend that extra five minutes and get it done.”

A lot of times it’s a matter of just a few minutes; it’s a matter of one email or one phone call or asking somebody in the newsroom to check a particular thing. I have a personal example: when I wrote a story forTheNew York Times, I went through a checklist and my typical procedure. It came down to one point with one person who I was quoting from a post on that person’s website. I checked the post and thought, “I should send an email just to verify these things,” and then decided, “Oh well, it’s on the site, it’s there, that’s my source.” And I ended up getting it wrong because I didn’t take those extra two minutes to send this person an email to verify a very simple fact.

ET: One of the things you mentioned was preventing errors by making people passionate about accuracy. Why aren’t we passionate about accuracy already? As journalists you’d think that’s one thing we’d be stressing.

CS: It’s true. You ask any journalist, “What are the most important aspects of your job?” and I’m sure within the top three things they would say being accurate. Everybody knows it’s important. But there is that gap between the idea we have and what we actually do on a daily basis, and that’s where the idea of passion and culture comes in. In the typical newsroom, there aren’t tools provided to reporters to help them be more accurate. There isn’t ongoing training to help them be more accurate. There aren’t constant communications going out about the issue of accuracy. It’s something we all care about but don’t really think about on a daily basis. That’s where the change has to happen.

ET: What are some of the main reasons for journalists making errors?

CS: We’re making errors on a consistent basis just doing things the way we’ve always done them — being pressed for time or taking something from a source verbatim and not cross-checking it. But in the larger sense there a few different categories that cause error. Number one is the way our brains work. Whether we’re writing it or speaking it on the air, our brains process language in unique ways. The way our brains process language can sometimes introduce errors — that’s the human element.

Then there are other things like technology. Spell checkers don’t introduce as many errors as they correct, but a spell checker can’t understand the context of a word. And so, for example, in an Australian newspaper they meant to call Syria a “Baathist” state, and instead a spell checker turned it to a “bastard” state. The technologies we’re using every day — keyboards, spell checkers — these things sometimes cause us to introduce errors where there hadn’t been before.

The third element is the process we use. At a newspaper, the reporter writes a story and it goes from one editor to the next. That’s supposed to be a process that improves quality, but it could just as easily introduce an error. When an editor thinks a reporter got something wrong he or she may just change it without talking to the reporter.

The last big element is the sources we use. A lot of times you get information from the police and they’ve made an honest mistake where they’ve got somebody’s address wrong or somebody’s name wrong. Then we reproduce the error. Or a press release comes in and you write it verbatim. Often the sources we’re using — sources of information or the human sources — make mistakes.

One of the big factors introducing errors today is our addiction to speed. People want to be first, they want to get the exclusive. So many news organizations now publish online and are turning into 24/7 news organizations. They want to get things up there fast, and we often sacrifice accuracy for speed.

ET: Why are errors important?

CS: Errors are important because, number one, they have a significantly detrimental effect on the reputation of our profession, and that can translate into financial issues. For journalists, it can hurt your reputation as a professional.

Often though, we forget the consequences errors have for the victims of them. If journalists realized the lasting effect errors have on their victims they would probably be a little more careful. People don’t forget when a newspaper or radio report gets something wrong about them. Even if it’s just their name, it’s going to stay with them forever and they’re going to tell their friends and acquaintances and this word-of-mouth factor is going to erode credibility.

There are errors that have a huge impact on people’s lives in an immediate sense. An example from the book that is one of the worst consequences I’ve heard of is the Fox News commentator who went on the air, read out an address in California, and said, “Law enforcement isn’t doing anything so we’re just going to tell you now that there’s a suspected terrorist living at this address.” There was no suspected terrorist living at that address — just your typical family who suddenly had graffiti sprayed on their house and people yelling obscenities. It got to the point where a squad car had to be placed outside the residence in order to ensure their safety.

The final consequence of errors, which again goes back to what’s going on in our news environment today, is that when something goes online — and most reporting ends up online in some form or another — and it’s incorrect, it’s going to spread rapidly. It’s going to be picked up by other websites potentially. It’s going to be cached by search engines, so that original version will stay there forever. And then usually it’ll end up in a news database like Nexis. So errors live on today longer than they ever have before. If we’re going to embrace all these wonderful new technologies we have to realize there’s a sense of permanence to them. That makes accuracy more important than ever.

ET: From your research for the book, what surprised you the most?

CS: The criticisms people have of the press today in terms of accuracy and errors have been with us for centuries since the dawn of the newspaper. People felt early newspapers were sensationalized, untrustworthy, and driven by bias and self-interest — all criticisms we hear today. It speaks to how difficult it is to attain accuracy. It’s not an easy thing. You can’t go out and purchase an accuracy machine, install it in your newsroom and suddenly there’s a high level of accuracy. It’s something that comes down to the people, the processes and the technologies. Our people are better trained than ever, and our processes and technologies have improved over centuries, but we’re still finding the same issues, the same problems. It’s a difficult thing to achieve.

It’s also interesting that even in some of the earliest newspapers they recognized the need for a correction. At the end of the 1600s, the guy who started the first newspaper in the United States expressed in his prospectus what is essentially our corrections policy today. He was aware that he was going to need to correct errors because nobody would buy his next edition if he didn’t correct the things that were wrong in the first. It’s been around for so long, yet we’re still doing a poor job of it today.

ET: How has the rise of independent fact-checkers changed journalism?

CS: What we’ve seen is the rise of what I call the new checker. Fact-checking has been around in U.S. magazines for a long time. It started at Time magazine, then moved onto The New Yorker. Now, unfortunately, it’s in decline at mainstream magazines in the United States and Canada, yet at the same time it’s being taken up by readers and by people who are politically engaged. They love to prove the so-called mainstream media wrong, and they’re engaging in fact-checking to do it. Facts have almost become weaponized in a form where it’s the preferred method to try and tear down a particular publication or a particular reporter. It’s ironic that at the same time fact-checking is on the decline in magazines, it is rising among bloggers and politically active people.

ET: Why did you decide to create a corrections page for the book itself?

CS: If I was going to write about the errors and mistakes of others, I was going to have to acknowledge my own. I was actually excited about that because what I wanted to do was not just have a corrections page online for the book, but I wanted to actually create a new kind of platform, a new way to correct errors in books.

The first part of that is having a statement of accuracy at the front of the book that talks about all the things I did in writing and in researching to try and ensure accuracy. But the most important part of that section is I’m very clear and I say, “I will have made errors.” There will be errors in that book. I’m not hiding that — so what am I going to do to correct those mistakes in an effective manner? The very last page of the book is a form that people can fill out and mail to me to report an error in the book.

Then, on top of that, on the website there’s a form people can fill out. As well, in the statement of accuracy one of the things I tell people to do—and to my knowledge nobody’s ever done this before—is I tell them to put down the book and go to the book’s website so they can read all the current corrections. That’s so much better than just putting them somewhere on my personal website for anyone who might happen to go there. If you’re going to do the corrections, you need to make it easy for people to get them. And you need to draw attention to it.

So that’s for the people who first pick up the book, but what if somebody reads the book and three months later I’ve made more corrections? On the book’s website, I have an RSS feed for the corrections, so people can go to the website once, sign up for the RSS feed and they will get corrections for as long as they keep that feed active in their reader. And the second thing is that I have an email subscription. So somebody can just enter their email address and they will be automatically emailed any correction added for the book.

This is part of the fundamental change that we need to see in terms of corrections, which is rather than making people jump through hoops to find them in a newspaper, we need to be pushing them out and we need to be placing corrections in the context of where they appeared. You have papers like the Times that place corrections in the online version of the article itself. That’s great, but people usually read an article once and don’t go back to it. So I’m trying to push the corrections out and make it easy for people to get them.

In a basic way, I’m just trying to walk the talk.

ET: At the beginning of the book, you mention that you distributed chapters to experts to have them look it over. Did you have anyone fact-check it, or did you fact-check it yourself?

CS: I’d hoped to hire a fact-checker for particular parts of it, but the honest-to-God truth is that I simply didn’t have the money to hire one. And so what happened was, yes, I did my own checking. I had an editor who worked with me on the style and the content of the book, and she did checking, and then there was a final person, who actually operated very much like a fact-checker. The final person was really supposed to do a copy edit, but she fact-checked every endnote, every attribution and a lot of the content of the book. So I didn’t have one fact-checker. I had a few half-checkers, which frankly is not the best.

But if this book becomes a bestseller and I have a lot of money, I will absolutely apply those resources to hire a fact-checker for future stuff. This is why you’re seeing fact-checkers cut, because it’s being seen as an unnecessary expense by a lot of magazines. And I saw it as very necessary but I didn’t have the financial resources to do it. It’s something that was too bad, but I was thrilled by that third editor who did a really great job, particularly checking attributions and citations.

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