Category Archives: Errors

“Never assume anything!”: Tips for greater accuracy

In light of my recent blog posts about errors and fact-checking, I thought I’d link to some resources to help writers improve their accuracy. Though some of these sources were written for journalists, much of the advice applies equally well to anyone who researches, writes, or edits. It’s important to remember that writers are ultimately responsible for their own work, and they can no longer just assume that their mistakes will be caught and corrected by copy editors or fact-checkers.

This list of “44 Tips for Greater Accuracy” is by Frank E. Fee Jr., the Knight Professor of Editing at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. There are two versions of Fee’s tips on the web: the first is a concise list, and the second has additional explanatory comments by Fee. You should read the whole thing, but here are some of his more important and universal tips:

  • Always do the math. Don’t rely on another person’s figures…
  • Never disregard a question that has been raised by another reader [or] by that small, sometimes indistinct voice in the back of your head…
  • Never assume anything!
  • We have to see the forest and the trees, so always read (at least) once for content and effect [and] read (at least) once for the mechanical errors (grammar, punctuation, keyboarding).
  • Always use all of the tools available to you (dictionary, stylebook, spell-checker, reference books, etc.). Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.
  • Never trust anything in the [newspaper] clips. How do you know the first story was correct? Do you know for sure corrections caught up with the library clip or archive copy? Has something changed since that story was written?
  • Always get another pair of eyes to look at copy…
  • Always analyze any correction you see — yours or another’s. Ask: How did the error occur? How could it have been avoided? What would I do next time?
  • Always give any sensitive, unusual or tricky material one last look.
  • Always go back and read the full sentence if you’ve changed a word or two in copy. Watch for subject-verb agreement, missing info, duplication, etc.
  • In doubt? Always call the reporter, wire service, or even the source. We’re after the truth, not just a plausible narrative…
  • Always be careful how you ask questions when checking a fact. Leading questions may lead you into trouble. Ask open questions that ensure complete, open answers.
  • Never commit to print anything that you don’t understand. If you don’t know, what are the chances readers will? In pinning down your own understanding, you may: learn something; find a better way to say it; find a more accurate way to say it.
  • Never correct an error until you’re sure you made one. Retrace your steps. Don’t take someone else’s word that copy is wrong; check it out. This will help you discover why the error was made.
  • Always remember: Errors can come in clusters. Finding one may not find them all. There may be others.
  • “Fee’s Theorem”: “The most severe error in any one passage of a story will divert attention from the less severe errors in the same passage. The bigger the error, the more likely it will be the only one caught at that reading. Subsequent readings will tend to continue to eliminate only successive next-most-glaring errors.”

Accuracy First (for reporters)” is a handout that was developed as part of the American Press Institute’s seminar, “Our Readers Are Watching.” Here are a few highlights:

Ensuring accuracy involves several steps:

  • Asking effective questions.
  • Taking accurate notes.
  • Gathering source documents.
  • Questioning information.
  • Verifying information.
  • Fact-checking your story.

Get the names right

Screw up a name and readers who know how that person spells the name will not trust anything else you write. And the source will certainly question your ability or commitment to getting anything else right…

How do you know that?

Judith Miller of the New York Times blamed her inaccurate reporting on weapons of mass destruction on her sources. “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong,” she wrote. Don’t ever buy or use that excuse. The story has your name on it. You are responsible for the information in your story, however you attribute it. Do all you can to evaluate the source and verify the information.

Get to the source. When a character gives you a fact in an interview, get used to asking, “How do you know that?” This gets you to the source of the information. The person you’re talking to may be mistaken or lying or not remember the complete story. Asking “How do you know that?” helps you find the best source for the information. If you’re hearing a story second- or third-hand, trace it back to its origin. If someone is citing statistics to you, get the report that is the source of those statistics. Then you can verify, add context and find more stats.

Evaluate the source. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this person is: Does the source hold a position that would give her official access to this information? Is the source well enough connected to learn this information unofficially? Has this person given you reliable (or unreliable) information before? Has this person given you inaccurate information before? What is the source’s motivation for talking to you? Is the source willing to go on the record and stand behind her story publicly? Who else knows this? Who else knows more about this?

Evaluate the information. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this information is: Does your source know whether this is theory, speculation, rumor or fact? If the information is factual, is it current? Is it complete? What is the context?…

Verify using other sources

Who else knows? Seek other people who are knowledgeable about this situation. They can confirm or refute what you’ve been told. They can fill in gaps. Seek to resolve differences. Again, ask them how they know. Beware the echo chamber: You aren’t receiving confirmation if your second source only knows the information because the first source told her.

Seek documentation. Find official data, records and reports that can confirm, refute or expand upon what you have been told. If you are writing about a court hearing you didn’t attend, get the official transcript. Photographs might help you verify some details…

Go online. Seek verification (or original information) at the official web site of the organization you’re writing about and web sites of agencies that regulate the organization and interest groups that monitor the organization. Be as wary of information you find on the internet as you would of any other source of information. Especially be wary of information from sites that don’t verify their information, such as Wikipedia…

Chip Scanlan’s article on the Poynter Online website, “Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy,” contains advice and links to other sources.

Sarah Harrison Smith’s 2004 book The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right has information on reading for accuracy, what to check, researching facts, and assessing the credibility of reference sources.

If you know of other useful sources you’d like to recommend, please do so in the comments to this post.

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“How Did This Happen?”: The story behind the Times’ comedy of errors (but I’m not laughing)

In today’s New York Times, Clark Hoyt, the public editor, wrote in detail about Alessandra Stanley’s error-filled appraisal of Walter Cronkite and how it happened:

The Times published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper, and senior editors say they are determined to find fixes. The Times seems to have particular difficulty in writing about people after their deaths. In addition to the appraisal in the Arts section, a front-page Cronkite obituary had two errors of its own, and the paper has suffered through a recent string of obits with multiple errors. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said late last week that an editor is being added to the obituary department to fact-check and work with the staff to reduce “unacceptably high error rates.”

The Cronkite episode suggests that a newsroom geared toward deadlines needs to find a much better way to deal with articles written with no certain publication date. Reporters and editors think they have the luxury of time to handle them later — and suddenly, it is too late.

What Sam Sifton, the culture editor, ruefully called “a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash,” started nearly a month before Cronkite died, when news began circulating that he was gravely ill. On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

June 19 was a Friday, a heavy time for the culture department, which was processing copy for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lorne Manly, Stanley’s editor, read the article but did not catch the mistakes; worse, he made a change that led to another error. Where Stanley had said correctly that Cronkite once worked for United Press, Manly changed it to United Press International, with a note to copy editors to check the name. In the end, it came out United Press and United Press International in the same sentence.

Though the correct date of the moon landing was fresh in his mind, Manly said, he read right over that mistake. Catching it might have flagged the need for more careful vetting. For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.

Janet Higbie, a copy editor, said she started reading the article that Friday and caught the misspelling of the Telstar satellite and the two incorrect dates, but fixes she thought she made didn’t make it into the paper. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Higbie said she had to drop the story and jump to deadline work, and she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later. No one did — for four weeks, until Cronkite died late on another busy Friday. “It fell through the cracks,” Higbie said.

Two days before his father died, Chip Cronkite sent me an e-mail message labeled, “pre-emptive correction.” He said that CBS, in reviewing its obituary material, had found inaccuracies. “As a life-long admirer of your newspaper,” he said, “may I suggest that you have someone double-check ahead of time?”

Douglas Martin, who had written an advance obit of Cronkite several years earlier, phoned Chip Cronkite. They went over spellings, discussed the cause of death and the like. No one thought to forward Chip Cronkite’s message to the culture department, where Stanley’s appraisal sat.

When his father died on July 17, Chip Cronkite said he called CBS and then The Times, at 8:01 p.m. Laurel Graeber, who was running the culture copy desk, said she didn’t get the word for half an hour. Work had just finished on the Saturday Arts section, and most of the editors had gone home. Past deadline, Amy Virshup, a deputy culture editor, decided to put Stanley’s appraisal across the top of the Arts front. Graeber said she was worried about a headline, photos and captions. “I was not focusing on details” within the story, she said, thinking those had been handled. Graeber did make one fix, changing the first name of ABC’s anchor to Charles Gibson from Charlie in the title of his program. But the title still had another error, which was just corrected on Saturday — mistake No. 8.

And, it could have been worse. Nicole Herrington, a late-shift editor reading the appraisal casually, decided to check a fact near the top — Cronkite’s age when he retired. It was wrong. He was 64, not 65. Virshup then headed off the same mistake in the Page 1 obituary.

Looking back at it all — a critic making mistakes in haste, editors failing to vet her work enough, a story sitting for weeks without attention and then being rushed through — one sees how small missteps lead to big trouble, leaving readers to wonder what they can trust.

Chip Cronkite seemed philosophical about all the errors. He said his parents had a joke ashtray with the inscription, “Just give me the facts: I’ll mix ’em up when I quote you.”

To The Times, this isn’t a laughing matter. Whitney said: “We cannot tolerate this, and have tightened procedures to rule out a recurrence. I have spoken with those involved, and other senior newsroom editors and I will monitor the implementation of these measures.”

See my previous blog post (“At least they spelled his name right”) for links to Stanley’s Cronkite article and the Times’ correction of it.

UPDATE: In Craig Silverman’s new post on his Regret the Error blog, he uses this as a “teachable moment” and gives some practical tips on how to prevent errors and increase accuracy.

At least they spelled his name right

Reading the New York Times this morning, I spotted this jaw-dropping correction listing seven different errors in one article about Walter Cronkite:

An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

Here’s the link to the original article about Cronkite (with the corrections).

At least they spelled Cronkite’s name right. In his August 12, 2007 column, Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor, wrote about the paper’s name problem:

The fact is, The New York Times misspells names at a ferocious rate — famous names, obscure names, names of the dead in their obituaries, names of the living in their wedding announcements, household names from Hollywood, names of Cabinet officers, sports figures, the shoe bomber, the film critic for The Daily News in New York and, astonishingly and repeatedly, Sulzberger, the name of the family that owns The New York Times…

So, you ask, what’s the big deal? Doesn’t The Times have more important things to worry about, like getting it right on Iraq and Iran and the presidential campaign?

Yes, a great newspaper has to get the big things right, but it also has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day to prevent the kinds of mistakes that start readers wondering, “If they can’t spell his name right, what else is wrong with the story?”

Or, as Joe Lelyveld said in 2000, when he was executive editor of The Times, “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”

At a retreat of senior editors of The Times, Lelyveld called on them to “sweat the small stuff.” He bemoaned “the malignancy of misspelled names,” pointing out, among other things, that The Times had misspelled the first name of Madeleine Albright, who was then secretary of state, 49 times, despite running three corrections.

Unfortunately, the cancer appears to be getting worse..

I asked Greg Brock, the senior editor in charge of corrections, why he thinks so many names are misspelled in the paper, especially when The Times has so many layers of editing. In theory, every article is read by at least five people after a reporter finishes it, though stories written or changed for later editions often get far fewer checks. Brock said that when he looks into mistakes he gets several common responses:

¶Reporters say they were operating from memory and didn’t bother to check. That’s what one writer said after misspelling the name of Julianna Margulies, the television actress.

¶Reporters assume that a name is spelled the “normal” way and don’t check. That’s what happened with the obituary of Neal Shine, the former publisher of The Detroit Free Press, whose first name was not Neil, as it appeared in the paper. Shine hired me in 1968, when he was the city editor of The Free Press, and he would get infuriated by errors like this.

¶Reporters checking names on the Internet are carelessly misled by other people’s misspellings.

Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor in charge of standards, has another theory. “Their minds are on higher things,” he said. “They’re looking at the bigger story, and they think they can’t bother with details like that.” Besides, he added, they expect misspellings “will be caught on the copy desk.”

I know the Times is having serious financial problems, but they really should hire back some of their fact-checkers and copy editors.

UPDATE 1: According to Gawker, this is not the first time the writer of the Cronkite article (Alessandra Stanley, the Times’  television critic) has made these kinds of  mistakes:

Alessandra Stanley Corrected Hard

How Many Corrections Does It Take To Get Fired At ‘The Times’?

Here’s the link to Craig Silverman’s posts about Alessandra Stanley at Regret the Error.

UPDATE 2: Here’s the link to Craig Silverman’s July 24th column about Alessandra Stanley for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Editors and fact-checkers fix Sarah Palin’s resignation speech

Vanity Fair has given us a fantastic illustration of how editors, copy editors, and fact-checkers can improve any piece of writing– even Sarah Palin’s “word salad” of a resignation speech:

If you watched Sarah Palin’s resignation speech, you know one thing: her high-priced speechwriters moved back to the Beltway long ago. Just how poorly constructed was the governor’s holiday-weekend address? We asked V.F.’s red-pencil-wielding executive literary editor, Wayne Lawson, together with representatives from the research and copy departments, to whip it into publishable shape. Here is the colorful result.

Vanity Fair has posted edited versions of all eleven pages of the speech. Here are pages 1 and 5 of the speech to give you a taste of what they’ve done:

Palin resignation letter edited

Palin

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish blog for the tip.

“Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes”

I heard an interesting story on NPR this morning– NASA accidentally destroyed the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk:

An exhaustive, three-year search for some tapes that contained the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk has concluded that they were probably destroyed during a period when NASA was erasing old magnetic tapes and reusing them to record satellite data…

NASA has, however, offered up a consolation prize for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the agency has taken the best available broadcast television footage and contracted with a digital restoration firm to enhance it, so that the public can see the first moonwalk in more detail than ever before.

But the lost tapes mean that the world will probably never again see the original images beamed back to Earth by the lunar camera that is now resting on the moon’s dusty Sea of Tranquility, right where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left it.

That special lunar camera recorded in an odd format that was incompatible with the format used for broadcast TV. So when the footage was received on Earth back in July of 1969, it had to be converted for the live television broadcast.

The conversion degraded the images, and hundreds of millions of TV viewers saw dark, murky pictures…

[Stan Lebar, who led the team that designed and built the lunar camera] knew that engineers on the ground did preserve the lunar camera’s odd-format footage by recording it onto tapes. So a few years ago, Lebar and some colleagues decided to go back and look at those tapes, to see if today’s digital technology could use them to produce a higher-quality video…

But, as NPR first reported back in 2006, the tapes were missing — no one had any idea where they were stored. That report helped trigger a massive search by NASA…

Lebar and others spent hours and hours in a vast government storage facility known as the Washington National Records Center, a place that Lebar compares to the giant warehouse at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark… But then they discovered something disturbing.

Over the years, NASA had removed massive numbers of magnetic tapes from the shelves. In the early 1980s alone, tens of thousands of boxes were withdrawn.

It turns out that new satellites had gone up and were producing a lot of data that needed to be recorded. “These satellites were suddenly using tapes seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Lebar.

And the agency was experiencing a critical shortage of magnetic tapes. So NASA started erasing old ones and reusing them.

That’s probably what happened to the original footage from the moon that the astronauts captured with their lunar camera, says Lebar. It was stored on telemetry tapes, and old tapes with telemetry data were being recycled.

“So I don’t believe that the tapes exist today at all,” says Lebar. “It was a hard thing to accept. But there was just an overwhelming amount of evidence that led us to believe that they just don’t exist anymore. And you have to accept reality.”

If you follow the link to the NPR website you can read or listen to the entire story and view video clips of the archival and restored images.

Here’s the link to more of the restored videos on the NASA website.

I think someone needs a vacation…

Thanks to The Stranger Slog for pointing out this hilarious Q&A from The Chicago Manual of Style Online:

Q. Is there a period after an abbreviation of a country if it is terminating a sentence? “I went to U.K..”

A. Seriously, have you ever seen two periods in a row like that in print? If we told you to put two periods, would you do it? Would you set your hair on fire if CMOS said you should?

The editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s monthly Q&A is Carol Fisher Saller. I enjoyed (and recommend) her book, The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships With Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself).

See my earlier blog post, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), for more about The Chicago Manual of Style book and website.

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with another of Saller’s classic Q&As:

Q. Oh, English-language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing? This author is giving me a fit with some of her overkill emphases, and now there is this sentence that has both marks at the end. My everlasting gratitude for letting me know what I should tell this person.

A. In formal writing, we allow both marks only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no.

The Washington Post discovers that fewer copy editors = more errors

Craig Silverman at Regret the Error has an excellent post about an important but underreported problem– the increasing number of errors in newspapers caused by the decreasing number of copy editors:

Just over two years ago, the public editor of the Orlando Sentinel wrote a column alerting readers to the fact that the paper had experienced a spike in the number of corrections. He was clear about the cause of the increased errors:

When the Sentinel tightened its financial belt back in June, it lost a wealth of seasoned veterans, many of them editors. Those journalists not only wrote headlines and captions. They also scrutinized the work of reporters — correcting spelling, straightening out syntax, double-checking facts — before publication.

With fewer people to do that now, less of that important work gets done, and the result is more published errors.

Yesterday, the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote basically the same column:

…Growing numbers of readers are contacting the ombudsman to complain about typos and small errors.

“As a virtually lifelong subscriber, I am disheartened by the increasingly poor quality of the editing of The Post,” wrote Richard Murphy of Alexandria. If typos can’t be caught by a spell-checker, “then The Post should restore a couple of copy editor positions. You have cut that staff too much.”

The Post’s copy editors are among the best I’ve worked with during nearly four decades in the newspaper business. But they’ve been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs. Those who remain are stretched thin while The Post expands to a 24-hour news operation in print and online.

Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures. It has declined further since then, but Post managers won’t provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer. The need is so critical that most are being hired back on contract through at least the end of the year, and part-timers are taking up some of the slack.

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they’re the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit…

“By definition, you’ll see more errors when there’s reduced staffing,” said Bill Walsh, the A-section copy desk chief. On a typical weeknight a few years ago, Walsh said, the three copy desks handling national, foreign and business news could rely on perhaps 20 editors. Those desks have since been combined into one desk, headed by Walsh. Today, he said, “there are some shifts where I’m looking at seven or eight people total.”…

These papers are by no means the only ones experiencing a spike in errors due to the loss of bodies on the copy desk. Adding to the problem is the fact that the move online means papers are churning out more content than ever before. Yet copy editors — and magazine fact checkers — are being shown the door.

Carl Sessions Stepp examined how some newsrooms are coping with this challenge is his recent article, “The Quality-Control Quandary,” It’s a must-read. I fear, though, that few organizations are rethinking their quality control process and means of verification. They’re just trying to do more with less. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I looked at this issue in a recent essay I wrote for Harvard’s Neimen Reports….

Here are the related links:

July 5, 2009 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors”

April/May 2009 article in the American Journalism Review by Carl Sessions Stepps, “The Quality-Control Quandary”

Craig Silverman’s essay in the Nieman Reports (Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard), “Reliable News: Errors Aren’t Part of the Equation”

Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and his column in the Columbia Journalism Review