Correction Tallies

Toronto Star corrections up 50 percent so far in 2012

2012 has so far been an error-filled year at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily circulation newspaper. (Disclosure: I write a weekly column for the paper, about the media error of the week.)

In a column last week, Public Editor Kathy English highlights statistics about the number of corrections the paper has published so far this year: “In the first three months of 2012, the Star has published 123 corrections,” she writes.

That number is a 50 percent increase compared to the same period in 2011 (“from 80 in the first three months of 2011 to 123 in 2012″). Other data from English: “93 of the 123 corrections were attributed to reporters, columnists and freelancers. Only 25 were classified as editing errors.”

One important question about these data is whether corrections are up because readers, sources and journalists are spotting and reporting more mistakes. Is the Star doing a better job of correcting its errors? Or is it making more errors, resulting in more corrections?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but one relevant piece of information is the paper hasn’t introduced any new kind of error report form or other means to make it easier for readers and/or sources to report errors. (The Star already has an error report button on every piece of content, a great initiative.)

So, we can establish that the increase doesn’t coincide with a new campaign or website design update that could increase the number of error reports, and therefore corrections. That suggests the increase in corrections is related to an increase in errors. Bad news for the Star.

English cites a common newsroom dynamic as one cause of error. “The reality in most every newsroom in North America,” she said, “is fewer editors editing more work on tighter deadlines for the paper and websites than in past years.” The paper offered a new round of buyouts to staffers late last year.

Her data also tell the story of another truth regarding errors and corrections: the vast majority of errors are identified not by journalists but by readers and sources.

Only 31 of these mistakes were reported to me by the newsroom journalists who erred. I don’t think that’s because journalists aim to hide their mistakes. Most often, they haven’t realized their error until it’s raised by a reader or source.

Readers and sources pointed out the majority of those errors with 58 error reports coming from readers and 34 from sources.

It’s a good thing Star readers and sources are stepping up to request corrections. The concern, of course, is why in 2012 they have more mistakes to report. Read more

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How The New York Times’ corrections tracker improves accuracy

How do you handle a reporter who’s making more mistakes than usual?

The New York Times recently confronted this issue with a regular freelancer whose corrections total was spiking.

Greg Brock, the Times senior editor who oversees corrections, was able to detect and ultimately address the issue because the paper is one of a handful of media organizations that track errors and corrections in an internal database.

The details of this mini case study was contained in a new column about errors and corrections from Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. His piece details how the paper handles mistakes and how it works to prevent them. Brisbane also offers a nice precis by Scott Maier, the top newspaper accuracy researcher working today. (Brisbane quotes me in the column, too. We spoke by phone last week at his request.)

So, why was that Times freelancer generating more corrections than in the past? From Brisbane’s column:

Upon inquiry, Mr. Brock learned that the freelancer was getting work — perhaps too much work — from multiple desks. The Times cut the assignments back, and the errors subsided.

As a longtime freelancer, I sympathize with this journalist. If The New York Times is feeding you a lot of work, chances are you’ll keep saying yes. In general, a freelancer is loath to say no to an assignment from a top client. You want to establish yourself as a go-to writer. More work means more money, too. So it’s tough on several fronts to be told you need to take fewer assignments because you are making too many errors.

I followed up with Brock to find out how the paper broached this subject with the freelancer. He declined to offer any specifics, but did share the general way the paper handles this kind of situation.

“It’s not an issue of our wanting to help them make fewer errors,” Brock said by email. “The issue is we tell them they can’t write for us if they make that many errors. So it’s their choice as to their number [of] assignments: thoroughly report, write and fact-check each article or you don’t write for The Times. Over the years — quite a few — we have dropped freelancers who were error-prone. There are too many unemployed journalists out there who would kill to report and write — accurately — for us.”

Every reporter has a different workload threshold. Exceed what you can handle and you won’t produce reporting of the same quality. Errors are one byproduct of too much work; They are also the byproduct of lack of research and sloppy writing.

Causes of error

During our conversation, Brisbane asked me what can cause an increase in errors. Workload is just one of many factors. I said the first question to ask  in this situation is: What’s changed?

Are there new people involved in the process of reporting or editing or production? Is someone no longer involved? Are you using new tools or lacking tools you used to have? Is the deadline different?

If things are not the way they used to be, you need to determine what is new or different. Changes in people, processes, and tools/technology are big causes of error. (At the same time, you can improve prevention by tweaking these same things.)

In an email, Brock listed a few other more specific reasons why Times journalists make mistakes:

… we find other reasons for errors: the person keeps looking up things on the Internet and not double-checking them. In those cases, we tell her/him they can’t do that and we monitor it closely. The smart ones, who care, stop doing it.

Others may have a problem with math/statistics. In that case, we figure out a way to help them; give them resources; give them an editor with statistical experience who can backstop them.

So it doesn’t always mean cutting back assignments — unless we determine it’s the work load.

What’s important is the Times doesn’t use its corrections tracker as a stick with which to beat its journalists. It’s a tool that provides useful data to help stop someone from falling into bad habits. It’s a way to identify a problem. From there, it’s important to determine cause and offer options for improving the situation.

Brock’s approach of offering “help … resources … an editor with statistical experience” is exactly right.

When there is a spike in mistakes, as opposed to a major ethical lapse or egregious error, first provide help and training. Discipline comes when the journalist is unable or unwilling to improve. Read more


Editor of NY’s Daily Star alarmed by low 2011 correction total

Earlier this month I wrote about three newspapers — the Toronto Star, Kansas City Star and Washington Post – that publicly released their 2011 correction totals. I noted that, compared to previous years, there seem to be fewer papers releasing correction totals.

I’m happy to report that The Daily Star of Oneonta, New York released its numbers Saturday in a column from editor Sam Pollak. He said the paper published 116 corrections last year — a figure Pollak said bothers him, “but not for the reasons one might think.” He explained:

It’s too low.

In 2010, we ran 178 corrections. In 2009: 187; in 2008: 174; and in 2007: 176. That’s an average of 178.75 over those four years. Why, then, was last year’s number so small in comparison?

We have smart, veteran reporters and photographers. You can say the same about our sports department. Our copy desk has had a year of transition and is getting better every day. But most of our people were here in previous years.

So why such a small number in 2011?

It’s a mystery.

Pollak is right to be alarmed rather than pleased by a drop in corrections. Corrections are a sign of a healthy, accountable news organization. We know journalists make mistakes, so the goal is to correct as many of them as possible. Not publishing corrections means you aren’t discovering and/or admitting your errors. Of course, fewer errors is a very good thing; but it’s not necessarily the same for corrections.

The best research we have, a 2007 study done by accuracy researcher Scott Maier, found that fewer than two percent of factual errors in newspaper articles are corrected. The reality is the media’s error rate is much higher than its correction rate.

Unless you can be sure your organization is preventing more errors either through new programs, improved processes or other means, a drop in corrections could be something to keep you up at night.

Sounds like Pollak is a bit of the worrying type, which is a good thing:

We’re trying very, very hard to get those right in 2012. As for the 2011 corrections, I still don’t know why there were so few. Editors worry about things like that. Truth be known, we worry a lot … about everything.

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Washington Post, Kansas City Star, Toronto Star publish 2011 correction tallies

It used to be that December and January would bring with them the publication of columns by newspaper editors and ombudsmen that offered an accounting of the number of corrections published by their organization that year.

So far, I’ve seen offerings from the Kansas City Star, Washington Post, Toronto Star, and… that’s about it. (Did I miss some? Email me and I’ll add them to this post.)

Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton shared this data:

The Post published 875 corrections in the print edition this year through Dec. 30. That’s down from 1,054 in 2010, with one day left in the year. The 17 percent decrease is significant, and the total is the lowest for any year since The Post began counting in 2005, when it had more than 1,300 corrections, according to Managing Editor Raju Narisetti.

That seems encouraging, but then he revealed it’s a limited sample of Post corrections because it excludes online corrections. The data sample is incomplete, to say the least, according to Pexton. He called upon the paper to start tracking online errors/corrections, and he advocated for the return of the Post’s online corrections page:

I’d like The Post to figure out a way to count its online errors, at least the more significant ones, such as fact inaccuracies and misspellings. And I also recommend that there be a page on the Web site, in addition to the printed corrections on Page A2 every day, where recent corrections are listed, both for print and online.

The paper used to have a page like that, and I’m not sure when it went away. These things are often lost during a redesign.

At the Toronto Star, public editor Kathy English provided these numbers:

The Star published 366 corrections in 2011, up just over 10 per cent from the 328 corrections published in 2010 — which was a decrease from 347 in 2009.

Still, that’s less than the 425 corrections published in 2008 and substantially less than the 2007 and 2006 totals: 497 and 512.

English noted most mistakes “are attributable to reporters and writers making assumptions and not fully verifying facts or double-checking details.” She also said close to 20 percent of the paper’s corrections were a result of name errors (misspellings, misidentifications etc.)

Update: In its post about year-end corrections totals, iMediaEthics reported that, “English told iMediaEthics by e-mail that the count is for print corrections, but the newspaper is finalizing its online corrections count this week.” So hopefully we’ll see those numbers soon. Good to know the Star keeps them.

At the Kansas City Star, readers’ representative Derek Donovan had these numbers to share for print corrections only:

In 2011, The Kansas City Star published approximately 38,000 stories and well over 50,000 photographs, graphics, charts and other visual items. Out of those, 235 generated corrections. That’s down from 2010’s tally of an even 300, though that year’s story count was slightly higher at just under 41,000.Still, that’s an overall decline in the percentages, which is always good news.

The Guardian also published a column looking back at the year in errors/corrections, but it provided no data.

Unfortunately, it seems each year brings fewer correction tallies.

In previous years, I’d see papers such as the Star Tribune, Boston Globe, and Star-Telegram, among others, publish columns that total the year’s corrections and compare the data to previous years. Those three haven’t published anything for 2011 that I’ve seen.

One thing these papers have in common is they don’t currently employ an ombudsman. That’s become more of a trend at American newspapers, as layoffs often hit the copy desk and ombudsman’s office.

This past May I spoke at the annual conference of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and executive director Jeffrey Dvorkin gave me the lowdown on membership:

“Our numbers are growing after a period of decline caused by the economic downturn especially among U.S. newspapers,” he told me. “We dropped to forty-five members in 2008, but we are up to sixty today thanks to a remarkable growth spurt in Latin America plus a few more in Africa, eastern Europe and south Asia.”

The news for ombuds is still rather bleak in Canada and the U.S. Dvorkin said Canada is left with three, down from fourteen in the 1990s. The U.S. has “around twenty,” also down from a couple of decades ago.

Fewer ombuds means fewer people counting corrections, and fewer end-of-year columns sharing data about mistakes.

It’s worth noting that the number of publications that would share correction numbers was always a small subsection of the overall number of ombudsman. That’s because very few news organizations maintain databases for errors/corrections.

I know that The New York Times, Toronto Star, Washington Post, and Kansas City Star still maintain databases. Apart from that, though, I’m not sure.

It’s tough to do a better job preventing errors if you don’t know what mistakes you’re making. It seems the vast majority of news organizations don’t have this important data, let alone someone to analyze and share it. Read more

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