Why misspelled names are so common & what journalists are doing to prevent them

Warren Buffett, Michele Bachmann and Elliott Gould all have something in common: they know what it’s like to have journalists repeatedly misspell their names.

News organizations frequently run corrections for misspelled names, and some have misspelled the same name dozens of times. Last week, the Los Angeles Times ran a correction after misspelling Gould’s name in a caption. That was the 47th time since 1985 that the Times has referred to the actor as “Elliot” instead of “Elliott.”

Henry Fuhrmann, assistant managing editor for the copy desks and standards at the Los Angeles Times, said that of 500 or so corrections published this year, about 14 percent have been for misspelled names. This is similar to other news organizations; in 2011, about 20 percent of the Toronto Star's corrections were name-related, while about 16 percent of The New York Times' were.

It’s so easy to check the spelling of names -- especially those of famous people -- and yet we often fail to take this extra step as journalists. We forget to ask for the right spelling, we write the name from memory, we misread our handwritten notes, we’re misled by incorrect sources online, or we assume a name is spelled the “normal way.”

Other times, we confuse people with similar-sounding names -- like when journalists reporting on Osama bin Laden's death last year referred to him as "Obama."

How the issue is playing out at news sites

Jesse Lewis, multiplatform editing chief at The Washington Post, said misspellings at the Post typically occur when sources have common names with unusual spellings -- Clark v. Clarke, for example, or Jimi v. Jimmy.

“In these cases, the error tends to take place when reporters get names and spellings from other people,” Lewis said via email. He noted that in other instances, spelling issues occur with foreign names. This is especially true with names that are spelled differently by different publications, such as Moammar Gaddafi.

Slate has also posted a lot of corrections for common names with unusual spellings. Home Page Editor Chad Lorenz said the site has fudged Michele Bachmann’s name numerous times -- spelling it with two L’s instead of one and her last name with one N instead of two. The site has misspelled Sen. Jon Kyl’s name multiple times as well.

Earlier this month, Slate misspelled three names in one week -- Kanye West, H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe. (Poe’s middle name is commonly misspelled.) That same week, Slate referred to Sen. Ron Johnson as Tim Johnson and U.K. chancellor George Osborne as David Osborne.

“Reporters here do understand the importance of proper spellings and work hard to avoid misspellings, so I don’t need to lecture them on it,” said Lorenz, who helps oversee Slate's corrections. “They hate misspellings as much as or more than I do. Probably more.” He estimates that Slate has written five or six corrections for misspelled names each month this year.

While he doesn’t excuse it, Lorenz understands why journalists get names wrong.

“In general, journalists probably misspell names because they are focused on other, more mentally demanding facts: understanding the way a piece of legislation works or the legislative process behind it; checking the math behind a series of statistics; checking that quotes are right; researching the historical facts of a given topic,” Lorenz said via email. “Those demands are then compounded by the time pressures of reporting and writing very quickly.”

It doesn’t help that newsrooms have let go of so many copy editors in recent years.

How misspelled names damage our credibility

When Starbucks employees misspell our names, it’s funny. When journalists do, it’s frustrating.

Our name is tied to our identity, so we feel slighted when people don’t take the time to spell it right. This is especially true when people we know spell our name wrong. I cringed when The Wall Street Journal misspelled one of its own reporters’ names in a byline.

Of course, I’ve been guilty of misspelling names, and so has Poynter.org. Of the 60 corrections we’ve run this year, about 16 percent have been for misspelled names.

I'm especially sensitive to the issue because my name is commonly misspelled. My parents loved the show “Family Ties” and named me after one of the main characters, Mallory Keaton. Hoping to make my name sound more feminine, they spelled it with two A’s instead of the more common spelling (one A, one O.) Ever since, people have referred to me as “Mallory,” “Mallery,” “Malory” “Malary,” and yes, sometimes even “Melanie.”

I let journalists know when they've gotten my name wrong in stories. More often than not, I've found that they fix the spelling but don’t write a correction.

When we misspell names and don’t write corrections acknowledging our mistakes, we chip away at our credibility (which isn't that high to begin with). Our audience may begin to wonder what other facts we’ve gotten wrong, or think we’re trying to hide our errors.

Phil Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times, alluded to this in a blog post last November. “It’s embarrassing when we misspell well-known names. Even worse is misspelling the names of ordinary people who may appear in the Times only once," he wrote. "Their moment in the spotlight is spoiled, and they’re likely to tell everyone they know that the Times can’t get its facts straight.”

Corbett said that 460 of the estimated 2,800 errors the Times corrected in print from January to November 2011 involved people’s names. That’s about 42 misspellings per month. Corbett didn’t have more recent figures to share when I reached out to him, but said the number of misspellings has remained more or less consistent.

What’s being done to avoid misspellings

Some news organizations have taken new steps to safeguard against misspelled names. The New York Times recently started using a new spell-check system that is integrated into its content management system, in hopes it will make reporters more aware of misspellings.

“It's much better at reading context and entire phrases, so it knows that ‘buffet’ is a legitimate spelling, but that ‘Warren E. Buffet’ is almost certainly an error,” Corbett told me, noting that Warren Buffett is one of the names the Times regularly misspells. “[The system] takes into account The Times' stylebook; it uses our newsroom dictionary, Webster's New World College; and it makes it easy for editors in the newsroom to quickly add new terms to the spell-check dictionary, for example a new name that suddenly crops up in the news.”

Additionally, Greg Brock -- who oversees the Times’ corrections process -- has started working more closely with editors who use a lot of freelancers. The goal, Corbett said, is to emphasize the need for freelancers to act as their own fact-checkers and double- and triple-check the spelling of names.

Editors can play an important role in reminding journalists to be more careful when spelling names.

Former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee had this to say to a young man who referred to him incorrectly when asking for a job in 1978: “Even though you are still young, very young, let me give you some advice. When you write the editor of a newspaper for a job, other things being equal, you stand a better shot if you spell his name right.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Fuhrmann shares this advice with reporters: “Unless it’s the president or your mother, always look [names] up. And even then, always double-check your typing. With search engines at our fingertips, there really is little excuse for not taking that extra step."

Fuhrmann suggests copying and pasting names rather than typing them out, and has found it beneficial to add hyperlinks to names in stories. “Linking to the official bio or website of a newsmaker or organization -- a useful but under-employed technique for informing readers -- compels the reporter or editor to see and read the name as rendered by a reliable source," he said.

Using accuracy checklists can also help. As my colleague Craig Silverman once told me, “One of the key things about accuracy is that it’s a learned behavior. If you create habits that reinforce accuracy, then your chances of making an error are greatly reduced.”

Some journalism schools are trying to reinforce the importance of accuracy by lowering students’ grades when they misspell names. I learned this after a University of Iowa student spelled my name incorrectly in a final project for her Gender and Mass Media class last winter. Her professor, Pam Creedon, lowered her grade from an A to a B as a result. When students misspell a name in classes that are open only to journalism majors, Creedon gives them a zero.

Ultimately, she wants to stress the value of spelling names right and of showing your readers that you care.

“[When] a family member, next door neighbor, friend, classmate or anyone sees a name misspelled in the media, everyone has a story to tell about when it happened to them,” Creedon said via email. “Sure, if the misspelling happens online these days, it can be corrected fairly easily. But, the memory of a misspelling never leaves.”

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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