Ombuds pick their notable corrections of 2011

At newspapers and other media organizations, it’s often the ombudsman — aka public editor, aka readers’ editor — who’s charged with the (mostly) thankless task of receiving error reports from the public and staff, and writing any resulting corrections.

This task occupies hours of their time each week, and sometimes daily. They read emails and take calls from readers, viewers and listeners pointing out errors. They track down the correct information. They follow up with editors and reporters. They respond to the public, and sometimes they also write columns or blog posts about the mistakes and the decisions they make regarding corrections.

As 2011 drew to a close, I wondered which of the corrections from the past year stood out for the people who think about them every day. So I asked. Below are six responses from correction handlers in the United States, Canada and Belgium. Each entry is in their own words, unless otherwise noted, with a bit of editing from me.

Kansas City Star: Derek Donovan, Readers’ Representative

There have been several memorable corrections this year, but this one from July 30 addressed an error that I believe was the result of a bizarre accident in the page design process:

In some editions of a July 16 story, extraneous text was inadvertently inserted into quotes from swimmer (Jane Doe), 14. Please see the sports pages of today’s Johnson County Neighborhood News and The Olathe News for the correct quotes.

The story in question ran in two different zoned tabs. Everything was fine in the version that printed first. The proof looks exactly like the final printed copy from the presses. With The Star’s computer system, zoned content is created in one place and becomes the source for the next version pretty much automatically. If it was correct in the first version, nothing should change for the second.

However, it looks like whoever was designing that second page inadvertently put his or her cursor down in the already-edited and proofed content from the swimming story and started typing. My best guess is that this person thought he was typing something about a basketball game on another page, because the word “balls” and the nonsense word “baball” were inserted into this 14-year-old swimmer’s quotes in the already-proofed story — in places that made no sense whatsoever.

The result was gibberish (“And it’s reallybaball fun to compete against them here.”), but you can imagine how that must have felt for a teenage girl. I’m pretty confident nobody in the girl’s family thought it was intentional, and I’ve never seen any other evidence of immature goofing around with copy in the Sports department here.

People are too busy for that kind of thing. But it was definitely one of the more unfortunate errors I’ve seen in a long time. I sent the family a nice archival full-color printout of the story with the correct text as a keepsake.

MediaBugs: Scott Rosenberg, Founder

MediaBugs isn’t a news organization, and Scott Rosenberg isn’t an ombudsman. But I asked Rosenberg to submit his most memorable correction because MediaBugs is a service that enables members of the public to report mistakes they see in the press. Rosenberg then works to get a correction, so he is involved with a fair number of corrections during the year. (Disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to MediaBugs.)

Rosenberg cited this correction from The New York Times as his choice for most memorable:

This article gives an imprecise explanation for why providing assistance to the Taliban was a felony. Executive orders by Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush forbade such assistance because the Taliban was considered a threat to the United States and had provided haven to Al Qaeda, but those orders did not declare the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. (The error was brought to The Times’s attention after related news reports in June 2011.)

Rosenberg’s commentary:

When a decade-old uncorrected error in the New York Times blew up in the face of a KQED interviewer on live radio on May 25, 2011, the incident highlighted some of the thorniest dilemmas facing large media organizations entering the digital age.

The host of KQED Forum relied on a New York Times story from 2002 to declare that “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh had pleaded guilty to providing services to a terrorist organization. Lindh’s father Frank, the show’s guest, insisted this was untrue. The host argued with him, Times clip in hand; but Frank Lindh was correct, and the Times was wrong. KQED ran a half-hour show the next day apologizing for its mistake.

But the Times story remained uncorrected until Lindh filed an error report with MediaBugs, which contacted the Times. A week later, the original Times story was finally corrected. That’s well and good, but the affair only ended up exposing the deep inconsistencies in the Times’ approach to fixing errors in its archives: apparently, with older mistakes, after some indeterminate period of time from publication has passed, the paper will not post corrections; except that, sometimes, as with the Lindh story, it will.

This messy policy can’t stand. For the sake of its own reputation and to preserve the (extremely high) value of its repository of past work, the Times will eventually have to take responsibility for the accuracy of everything it has published, no matter how far back in time.

New York Times: Greg Brock, Senior Editor/Standards

Of course, we take errors very seriously here. But because we correct any error brought to our attention — including middle initials — we invariably end up with some funny ones. This has to be one of the best of 2011 (and it shows the lengths to which The Times will go to set the record straight):

A report in the Extra Bases baseball notebook last Sunday misidentified, in some editions, the origin of the name Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, which Mets pitcher R. A. Dickey gave one of his bats. Orcrist was not, as Dickey had said, the name of the sword used by Bilbo Baggins in the Misty Mountains in ”The Hobbit.” Orcrist was the sword used by the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield in the book. (Bilbo Baggins’s sword was called Sting.)

As far as serious errors, we have certainly had our share. But nothing irritates me more than when we misspell someone’s name. First, it’s Journalism 101. (Phillips — one L or two?) Second, the person whose name we have misspelled (I’m speaking of regular folks — not public figures) most likely has never been mentioned in The Times — and never will be again. In 2011, we have misspelled almost 500 given names or surnames. (And in a few instances, we have misspelled both!)

Taken together, those are my picks for the ones I most regret.

PBS: Michael Getler, Ombudsman

Getler pointed to this editor’s note issued by the PBS program Frontline:

After broadcasting “The Spill,” we heard from the office of Deputy Secretary Hayes at the Department of Interior. They complained that, in response to a question posed by correspondent and co-producer Martin Smith, an answer from a later exchange with Deputy Secretary Hayes had been edited in.

Reviewing the sequence, we determined that this, indeed, had happened. We asked Smith to reconstruct how this came about, and this is what he told us:

“Initially, as we cut the sequence, my question was followed by Mr Hayes’ first answer and then combined with a later answer to a similar question, in order to help flesh out the Secretary’s position. This is a standard editorial decision in editing down a complex exchange for television.

“Later, however, in the last part of a very tight production schedule, the first answer was dropped. We were editing for clarity and sharpness, but also to fit the time constraints of the one-hour broadcast, and a late-night decision led to this error of judgment.

“We did not set out to be anything less than fair to the Deputy Secretary’s position. But because both the question and the answers dealt with the same basic issue – how the Department deals with companies with bad safety and environmental records – it appeared at the time to be acceptable. I did not intend in any way to misrepresent Deputy Secretary Hayes’ views.”

FRONTLINE’s editors agree that the edit was a mistake and not in keeping with our journalistic practices, and we regret it. We have corrected the error and replaced the sequence with the first question and answer. This version is now posted on our web site, and will be included in any future broadcasts.

We believe that the original broadcast offered a fair representation of Deputy Secretary Hayes’ position for our television audience. (You can read an independent review of this matter prepared by the PBS Ombudsman.)

For those interested in the extended version of Deputy Secretary Hayes’ interview with producer/correspondent Martin Smith, we published the transcript on our web site on the night of the original broadcast — a commitment to transparency that we’ve maintained for more than 15 years.

“I found it amazing that such a fine program would do something like that,” Getler wrote in his email to me. At the time, he wrote a column about the error. (Poynter noted the column when it was published.) An excerpt from what Getler wrote then:

… This was a mistake, in my view; a big and serious one in terms of the inherent risk it takes with Frontline’s credibility in the interest of what Frontline says was providing more clarity to the viewer on one very brief portion of the program. It was a question and answer switch that was absolutely sure to be caught and questioned — by David Hayes — even though no one else would notice it.

I have no experience as a producer and, as I’ve said, have appreciation for the challenge of compressing these things. My guess is that other producers have wrestled with this kind of problem and dealt with it in various ways. But the idea of matching one question with the answer to another one just violates a rule so basic that it is hard for me to absorb and impossible to condone. I find it astonishing that Frontline went down this road. There must have been better ways to do this.

The narrator, for example, plays a huge role in this program, carrying the theme of BP culpability throughout the script and the questioning of why BP wasn’t challenged more by Interior about its deep water efforts. Had they left Hayes’ actual answer to the first question in the program and then had the narrator say something like, “Later in the interview Hayes also said . . .” it seems as though it would have worked. Easy for me to say and not have to figure out what else to cut, but definitely worth it in terms of the stakes here for Frontline.

Or, if Frontline believes, as Dornstein said in his first response, that Smith “asked Hayes several versions of the same question,” why not just use the question Smith asked that produced the answer from Hayes that Frontline found most clear?

De Standaard (Belgium): Tom Naegels, Ombudsman

The most memorable correction I had to deal with — just a week ago, as it happens — involved a lot of misunderstandings.

One of our journalists had written a piece in which he mentioned that a certain professor’s position at his university was “not disputed” (in Dutch: “niet echt omstreden”). That was the phrase he intentionally chose and it appeared as such on paper. The article also appeared simultaneously on our website. There, a couple of readers found the phrase “not disputed” to be odd — they thought it was a mistake, they thought it should read “not indisputed” (“niet echt onomstreden”) and signalled it as such via the “report a correction” button.

Now this is where it gets complicated … The online editor believed that the readers were right. He didn’t check with the journalist and changed the word. That meant there were now two opposing versions of the same line on our website. [The original language was] on the PDF version of the paper, which you can download … in the online article, which is one click away (you can choose between PDF and html), the professor’s position was “not indisputed.”

Next step: I wrote my ombud’s column about the journalist’s piece. I criticized him for not being convincing enough. I also quoted a couple of lines, among them the disputed/indisputed one. As it happens, I always copy-paste my quotes from the online edition, to make sure I do not make mistakes in copying the quotes.
By copying the “mistakenly corrected mistake that wasn’t one,” however, I DID misquote the journalist, which made him understandably angry. He thought my criticisms were beside the point anyway, and now I couldn’t even quote him correctly! “Isn’t that the first thing you might expect from an ombudsman?” he said.

Now, I managed to convince him of my good intentions. We went to the online editor, found out what had happened, and he apologized and re-corrected the false correction. Both in html and on PDF, the professor is once again not disputed.

There’s one exception: my own column. There, it still reads that the good man is, according to the journalist, “not undisputed.” And I have no idea how to deal with that. If I have it changed, I create the same situation: the PDF would tell you the opposite from the HTML article. If I don’t have it changed, I visibly misquote my own paper, since there is no trace left of the “indisputed” anywhere in the original piece.

By all accounts, I’m the one who looks bad. :-)

Toronto Star: Kathy English, Public Editor

My most memorable correction is the one I published to remedy my own mistake.

Like all journalists, I deplore being wrong — and especially hate misspelling anyone’s name. When I was a journalism prof at Ryerson [University], I gave an F to any paper with a misspelled name and I tell journalists at the Star that we must always correct when we get names wrong.

I didn’t realize I had misspelled the first name of the Yemeni journalist Khaled al-Hammadi until I saw it published in the newspaper as Khalid. Somehow I got this wrong, even after having lunch with him, asking him how to pronounce his name and taking his card. (In my own defense, I was feverish with a ghastly flu when I wrote the column, but still…)

As the writer who made a dumb mistake, I must admit that when I opened the paper and saw my error, for a brief moment — really, just a split second — I thought perhaps no one would notice I had spelled his name with an “I” instead of an “e.”

But, I quickly stopped being a writer who made a mistake and became the public editor, telling myself what we know for sure — someone always notices.

I immediately corrected the online version and appended a note to indicate the mistake had been made; I tweeted an apology to Khaled and tweeted about the error:

aaah, shoot me! @khaledHammadi dodges sniper’s bullets to report in Yemen, I misspell his name. Corrected online, correx in paper to come.

I followed this with the print correction.

This was a humiliating error, made all the more so because Khaled was in Toronto being honoured by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, so hundreds of journalists would know I got this most basic thing wrong.

But certainly the bigger mistake here would have been not to correct my dumb error.

The correction:

Khaled al-Hammadi was honoured in Toronto last week with an International Press Freedom Award. A Nov. 26 column misspelled his given name.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.