From The New York Times, December 24, 2009: “A picture caption with an article in some editions on Tuesday about continuing transportation problems after the weekend snowstorm misidentified the location of a pile of slush in the Bronx. It was on Fordham Road, not Fordham Avenue.”
Anyone else share my love of journalism corrections—especially fabulously nit-picky ones like this? Having spent part of my career in a newsroom, I love imagining the back stories behind the weirder and more obscure mea culpas. How did the hapless writer of the picture caption get wind of the fact that he or she misplaced the pile of slush? Did some angry slush-watcher call the paper? How many editorial come-to-Jesus meetings did it take to resolve the slush scandal? Are slush-pile jokes making the rounds in the newsroom?
Most corrections are pretty mundane—incorrectly spelled names, transposed dates and the like. So we corrections-watchers gleefully pounce on misplaced slush piles, or this wince-inducing correction from last month’s Washington Post: “A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.” (Shout out to the Regret the Error blog, by journalist Craig Silverman, for bringing this one to wider attention.)
This is entertaining stuff for journalism obsessives. But are there any takeaways from making a study of corrections—aside from the feeling of relief that it wasn’t you who made such a spectacular and public goof? For one thing, corrections are a constant reminder not to get too smug about one’s ability to create a clean and factually correct piece of writing. The second you don’t think you need to double-check a fact, or that you can skip that last round of copyediting, is the moment you’ll lose your grip on quality control. (Of course, if you’re working with the Content Bureau, we relentlessly proof your copy so you can skip the stress—and the expense of reprinting that gorgeous full-color corporate brochure marred by a jarring typo.)
The other big takeaway is the value of being honest and transparent with your audience when errors do occur, in spite of the best fact-checking and your attention to detail. A correction about a misaddressed pile of slush makes you laugh, but it also shows the Times’ commitment to offering the most complete and clear news coverage available. They don’t sweep their mistakes under the rug. They air them out, which builds readers’ trust in their content.
As painful as it is to admit an error, it’s more painful to cope with diminished expectations of customers (and internal stakeholders) who doubt the quality of your work. It’s far better to fess up sooner rather than later. If you’ve erred online—in your blog, newsletter, wiki, or tweet—consider yourself lucky: fix, fess up as appropriate, and then move on. If in a print pub such as your industry magazine, suffer through the correction. And if in a hard-copy marketing communications document—the data sheet, case study, brochure, white paper, or playbook awaiting your customers arriving at tomorrow’s user conference—weep. And vow to use a professional copy editor (hint: the Content Bureau) next time.
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