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The Union targeting mistakes

Richard Somerville, Editor
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Mistakes drive editors crazy. They frustrate journalists, too – the good ones, anyway. But those most dismayed by mistakes are readers.

Unfortunately, we’ve had more than our share of them lately, so I thought it would be a good time to address the issue – why they happen, and what we’re doing to limit them.

I use the word “limit” because readers would know I was lying if I said we could stop them cold. Humans put out newspapers, and “to err is human,” as Alexander Pope wrote. There are hundreds of thousands of words in an average newspaper – every day.



On the other hand, that is no excuse. Pope may have believed that to forgive is divine, but if a newspaper is continually seeking forgiveness for its mistakes, what we have is – to use a psycho-pop term – an enabling relationship with our readers.

Nothing is more cringe-making than having someone say, “I have been reading your paper for years, and it’s a good paper . . . for a small community.” That’s almost worse than somebody saying we’re not a good paper (which I don’t believe is true, by the way, although I do believe we can and will become better). We don’t want pity.




On the other hand, we don’t want to be seen as a bunch of error-prone underachievers, either. As this community has grown, so have the expectations of its newspaper. Mistakes are no longer seen as quaint. They are increasingly unacceptable. And at what point does that mean people won’t read you, despite being the county’s only daily?

That’s a point we don’t want to reach, and so we’re taking steps now to be more proactive in dealing with errors.

What kinds of mistakes are we talking about? They come in many forms, big and small. An example of a big one was a Page One photo this week in which local (and well-known) Korean veteran, G. B. Tucker, was identified as someone else. A small one occurred last week when we said a story was on one page when it was on another. I’ve been the cause of a few myself.

In conversations around the county, far too many people for my comfort have said nice things about The Union at first, but then mention that a story about them – or a subject they are knowledgeable about – had mistakes in it. Or I overhear snips of conversation at the cafe: “He’s lived here all his life and they can’t spell his name right?” Or, “If they got that wrong, it makes me wonder what else they get wrong.”

Too many journalists shrug off mistakes, thinking it’s not a big deal. They are wrong. A national sample of readers by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1999 found that factual errors in news stories corrode the credibility of the newspaper that published the mistakes. A 1994 survey in Chicago found that accuracy was first among characteristics that most bothered readers about newspapers. And one in 1998 found that 86 percent of respondents believe stories “often” or “sometimes” contain factual errors.

Obviously, any newspaper seeking to become better must deal with the issue of mistakes such as spelling and grammar errors, wrong names, wrong titles, wrong addresses, wrong dates, switched photos, wrong page references. It’s not enough just to run a correction, although admitting the error is a good place to start. Often readers don’t complain about a mistake (that pity thing again), and we pretend that if there are no complaints, nobody noticed. No, a program to cut out mistakes has to attack the systemic disfunction that often seems to force errors.

We’re adapting our model for improvement from practices at top newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune:

1. Track every mistake, not to punish, but to correct. Who made the error? Why did it occur? How did it come to our attention? Were deadlines a factor? How could it have been avoided?

2. Create a system that makes it easy for readers to report errors, publish corrections quickly, explain what happened and apologize.

3. Return to the fundamentals, including refresher training, and instituting fact-checking procedures.)

4. Build accountability for being accurate into annual performance reviews.

We have many readers in Nevada County who are not shy about telling us when we’re wrong. We appreciate you, we’ve heard you, and we’re doing something about it.

Richard Somerville is editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.


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