August 9, 2013

There are a multitude of factors that can come into play when a mistake occurs.

When I give workshops about the source of journalistic errors and how to prevent them, I point to big-bucket causes such as the tools we use, and the processes we follow. Soon I get to a very personal cause of error: the human brain.

Our brains are, as Yuka Igarashi writes in a lovely essay about human error for The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog, “the original autocorrectors”. And she doesn’t mean that in a good way.

We see things that aren’t there and miss things that are. Yes, our eyes literally play tricks on us. We miss obvious typos. We’re prone to linguistic mistakes such as the anticipation error that causes so many journalists to speak of a man named “Obama Bin Laden.”

“What is happening in that specific case … is that the speaker has anticipated the ‘b’ of Bin laden and moved it up to replace the ‘s’ in Osama,” Michael Erard, author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean told me back in 2011. “That is an anticipation error, where there is a string of sounds and the person basically jumps ahead in the string and selects one sound too soon and inserts it.”

Our brains sometimes lead us astray and we’re left wondering “Why did I say that?” or “How did I miss that?”

It’s such a common, natural state of affairs that Igarashi, the managing editor of Granta, offers the suggestion that “anyone whose job it is to catch these mistakes – editors, copyeditors, subeditors, proofreaders – has to be an abnormal and malfuctioning [sic] human.”

Editors often talk about coming at a piece of text with “fresh eyes” in order to see things in a different way. What this means, and what Igarashi is playfully hinting at, is that we have to hack our brains in order to get past innate blind spots and re-orient towards spotting mistakes.

If you’re a good editor, you’re “able to look at a page without using your brain,” Igarashi writes. “Put another way, you need to be able to look at words in a way that goes against everything your brain would naturally do when it looks at words.”

Stalwart copy editor John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun models a green eyeshade at the 2000 ACES conference.

I imagine the old newspaper proofreaders undergoing a transformation when they pulled on their green eyeshades to attack a text. The Hulk turned green; they just need a tint of it to see things anew.

The key is effecting a transformation into error-spotting mode. What’s your trick?

Simply expecting that you can avoid and identify all manner of typos and factual errors and other mistakes during the course of journalistic work is to ignore the error-prone processor perched atop your neck.

“In the end, there’s no switch we can press on to turn off the wildly interpolative, inaccurate, imaginative text decoder built into our systems, which is of course what sets us apart, for the time being and for better or for worse, from our machines,” Igarashi writes.

Long live abnormal and malfunctioning humans!

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Craig Silverman ( is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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