If there is one thing that is the root cause of most errors in journalism, it is rushing through the details. Tied in with its corollary of not checking, these are the reasons why most mistakes happen, based on my experience writing hundreds of corrections each year.
How this happens is completely understandable. A number of stories are produced and written on deadline in a very compressed timeline. In the past week, in breaking news coverage of the U.S. primaries and the debates, there were two minor mistakes. One was a reference to Dennis Kasich rather than John Kasich (the Ohio Governor and Republican presidential candidate), the other a reference to the August Republican convention rather than the correct month of July. In both cases, the reporters had mere minutes from the end of the event to finish writing, do a quick overview and file for digital and print. In that rush, when you are focused on the main elements of the article, you can miss the details. The same is true for the editors, who also have minutes to check and review a myriad of facts before publishing.
And while they slip past in the rush, there are always sharp-eyed readers who know better.
It's not just reporters who make mistakes. On Saturday, I heard from many readers who caught a mistake in the Cryptic Crossword by Fraser Simpson. One clue was wrong and another was missing, causing frustration on Saturday morning. Mr. Simpson graciously sent a note saying it was his mistake: Doing a quick cut-and-paste from his file before sending for publication, he missed the number for one clue and entirely missed the other.
Also last week, health columnist André Picard, who makes few mistakes, made an error in conflating two drugs – in large part because he was rushing. In this column on seniors being given so many drugs, he said he made the error due to "inattention, rushing, making assumptions and not double– and triple-checking.
"In this case, I was writing about deprescribing and mentioned the upcoming campaign by the Canadian Deprescribing Network. Initially, I focused on benzodiazepines and proton pump inhibitors. At the last minute, I decided to also mention their third target, glyburide. First mistake – last-minute additions.
"I had never heard of the drug so I looked it up and saw many references to glyburide/metformin. I knew the term metformin well. I assumed glyburide/metformin were synonyms when, in fact, they are often used in combination. Mistake No. 2: assumptions.
"I looked up the side effects for glyburide on a couple of sites I trust, skimmed over them and picked out a recurrent example: kidney damage. But, of course, it is diabetes that causes kidney damage, not the drug used to treat diabetes. Mistake No. 3: skimming, rushing.
"And mistake No. 4: Not double-checking, especially when I had this nagging voice in my head saying, 'It's weird I've never heard of this drug …' "
I agree that those four root causes of mistakes cover pretty much every mistake. For journalists, it's worth keeping these things in mind: 1. Stay focused. 2. Don't hurry. 3. Never assume you know. 4. Check one last time – especially names, numbers and factual statements.