Newspapers make lots of mistakes and publish damn few corrections.

Media criticism.
Aug. 15 2007 6:08 PM

Reign of Error

The average newspaper corrects very few of its factual errors, says professor.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The average newspaper should expand by a factor of 50 the amount of space given to corrections if Scott R. Maier's research is any guide.

Maier, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, describes in a forthcoming research paper his findings that fewer than 2 percent of factually flawed articles are corrected at dailies.

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Maier's study relied on data gathered from 10 metropolitan newspapers: the Boulder Daily Camera,the Charlotte Observer,the Detroit Free Press,the Grand Forks Herald,the Lexington Herald-Leader,the Miami Herald (Broward Edition),the Philadelphia Inquirer,the San Jose Mercury News, the Tallahassee Democrat,and the Wichita Eagle. Starting on an arbitrary date, researchers clipped from each newspaper every locally produced and bylined story from Page One and the metro, business, and the lifestyle sections until they had collected 400. The study culled no sports stories, opinion pieces, columns, or reviews. (For reasons I won't go into here, only 200 news stories were gathered from the Free Press and 200 from the Inquirer, making for a total of 3,600 articles.)

The researchers then contacted a primary news source named in each of the stories and asked him to complete a survey about the accuracy of the piece. A news source was defined as a witness or participant with firsthand knowledge of the events described in the story. Only "hard," objective errors alleged by the news sources were included, and the study assumed that the factual assessments of the news sources were correct.

The results might shock even the most jaded of newspaper readers. About 69 percent of the 3,600 news sources completed the survey, and they spotted 2,615 factual errors in 1,220 stories. That means that about half of the stories for which a survey was completed contained one or more errors. Just 23 of the flawed stories—less than 2 percent—generated newspaper corrections. No paper corrected more than 4.2 percent of its flawed articles.

Obviously, a newspaper can't publish a correction until it learns of its error. But the studied dailies performed poorly when informed of their goofs. Maier found that 130 of the news sources reported having asked for corrections, but their complaints elicited only four corrections.

Most of the errors detected were relatively minor—an incorrect title or a wrong age. But this is small consolation given the preponderance of errors documented by Maier and the alleged failure of some newspapers to run a correction, even after being asked.

I hope somebody forwards Maier's research to New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, if only to calm him down. In a Sunday column about chronic misspellings in the Times, Hoyt bemoans the incredible number of names the newspaper misspells, calling them a "cancer" that "appears to be getting worse." Hoyt writes:

… 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.

Given Maier's findings, it's more likely that the number of misspelled names the Times corrects—which Hoyt claims hit 269 for the year as of early August—reflects rigor rather than negligence at the paper.

Consider: The Times published an average of one correction a day in 1982, Maier reports in his paper, while in 2004 it averaged nine a day. So, is the Times more error-prone today, as Hoyt seems to believe with his talk about a worsening cancer, or does its aggressive solicitation of corrections via e-mail and a toll-free phone number merely boost the number of errors reported? Guess where I stand.

Hoyt also writes of the outrage the Detroit Free Press editor who hired him in 1968 would have expressed at the Times' many spelling errors. Hoyt's implication is that the Free Press, long owned by the Knight Ridder chain where Hoyt spent most of his career, enforces—or once enforced—higher standards than the Times. Is that the case? Oh, hell no. At least eight of the newspapers shamed in Maier's study belonged to Knight Ridder at the time of the survey. So much for his former employer's devotion to accuracy.

I'm fine with Hoyt charging out of his pen to challenge the spelling skills of Times reporters and editors, but before he does so again, will he please consult Maier and other scholars who study press accuracy? He might find that the paper deserves more praise than criticism for its voluminous corrections.

******

No discussion of Times errors is complete without a mention of Kill Duck Before Serving: Red Faces at The New York Times: A Collection of the Newspaper's Most Interesting, Embarrassing and Off-Beat Corrections. Buy this book now. Hitsville.org, my friend Bill Wyman's new blog, dices Hoyt's column into fine pieces. Maier presented his paper under the title "Tip of the Iceberg: Published Corrections Represent Two Percent of Factual Errors in Newspapers" earlier this month at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. He anticipates publication inside of a year. Every column about errors and corrections includes at least one big goof. Where's mine? Send findings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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