Many years ago, back when recipes were found in, yes, the “women’s section,” The Globe and Mail published one of my all-time favourite corrections.
“A recipe for fruitcake includes two tablespoons of sherry,” it read, “not two cups.”
And 2012 has seen some that are almost as funny. For example: “François Mitterrand, the former French president, is reported to have said that Margaret Thatcher had the mouth of Marilyn Monroe and the eyes of Caligula – not Stalin, as incorrectly stated.”
And this one: “An editing error wrongly identified a Soviet tank as part of the U.S. military inventory.” And: “James Bond preferred his martinis shaken, not stirred.”
Not that The Globe is alone. How about this cringe-worthy correction by a competitor? “The Earth orbits the sun, not the moon.”
And yet, for journalists, making mistakes is anything but funny. It erodes their credibility, which is one reason why, at the beginning of the year, I was appointed public editor, a position created to re-emphasize accuracy and make The Globe more accountable.
I am expected, as editor-in-chief John Stackhouse explained, “to address issues of journalistic integrity; investigate complaints or signs of improper conduct; explain our work and our purpose, both in print and online; and work with the editor and staff to understand and address shortcomings in our journalism.”
To that end, I started tracking Globe and Mail miscues and found that, on average, it makes between 50 and 60 corrections and clarifications a month.
The figure may seem high, and most errors involve misspellings (names or titles) or wrong numbers (an incorrect year, percentage or calculation). But studies also suggest that newspapers make many more mistakes than are actually drawn to their attention. As well, bloopers are often caught by the online audience before a story goes to print.
On the other hand, The Globe covers complex issues and must meet constant deadlines. When a newspaper publishes as many as 90 million words a year and its website even more, mistakes can happen – and are soon spotted by sharp-eyed and extremely know- ledgeable readers.
In one case, a mother reported that her daughter had just finished a school project on the sinking of the Titanic, and noticed that a Globe graphic on the tragedy said that no children were among the first-class casualties. The young student knew that wasn’t quite right: “One child from first class, Lorraine Allison, died on the Titanic 100 years ago,” the resulting correction read.
Other readers are well versed in history, and soon raised the alarm when The Globe carried a photo of Nazi general Carl Oberg but identified him as Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.
The weekly Drive section has especially careful and detail-oriented readers, leading to such corrections as: “Steve McQueen drove a 1968 Ford Mustang GT 390 Fastback in Bullitt .” Or: “Due to a typographical error, a Drive article contained incorrect information about the rate at which aerodynamic drag increases. When you accelerate from 50 km/h to 100 km/h, the drag doesn’t double; it quadruples.”
Other readers are photography buffs, such as the one whose email to a reporter prompted: “Kodak Tri-X film was exclusively a black-and-white film.”
Some are especially vexed when slip-ups appear in a quiz: “Henry Kissinger was named World Statesman of the Year in 1999. An earlier version of this quiz included an incorrect answer.”
Getting the date wrong is equally embarrassing (“The Montreal Olympics took place in 1976,” we corrected), as are errors of omission, especially ones that involve a special occasion: “Nova Scotia was inadvertently left out of a two-page folio.” Not only were the pages devoted to a premiers’ summit, the province omitted happened to be the host.
Many sections of The Globe use honorifics (Mr., Mrs. and Ms.), and getting them wrong can be especially painful, both for the people concerned, and for us when we have to note that the Leslie mentioned in a story was a woman, not a man.
Journalists also have to be very careful when declaring something, or someone, to be the first, last or only, because someone is bound to know better: “An earlier online version of this story incorrectly stated that John Turner is the only Canadian to have represented ridings in three provinces. He isn’t.” Anyone remember William Lyon Mackenzie King?
Still, it’s important that The Globe will own up to a mistake, believing its coverage must be accurate as well as fair. And starting in the New Year, all corrections will appear on page 2 of the front section, rather than wherever the error appeared. (Online stories will continue to be fixed, with a note to explain what was done.)
The goal is greater transparency, to make it easier to see anything that has gone wrong in the paper.
This is something readers have a right to, even if the consequences are just a fruitcake that packs too much of a punch.