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May 19, 2003

SOMEBODY IS FIGURING IT OUT:

The public is fixated on Jayson Blair, the young reporter for The New York Times who hoodwinked his readers and editors with willful plagiarism, lies, and made-up sources, but a much less sinister occurrence undermines the credibility of most newspapers every day: the unintentional errors, large and small, that make their way into each issue. . . .

Mr. Rogers recalls a San Francisco Chronicle story from Afghanistan that referred to someone carrying a "300-millimeter pistol" - roughly the size, a reader pointed out, of a gun on a battleship. "A lot of us aren't very good about firearms or the metric system," he laughs. . . .

Still, editors and reporters both agree the issue of accuracy and its effect on readers' trust is a serious one - one reason the ASNE sponsored a lengthy study several years ago. The conclusion: Everything from a misused "affect" to a mislabeled map erodes public confidence.

But a willingness to quickly correct mistakes goes a long way toward restoring it.

Yep. They could learn a lot from bloggers, that way. Fix errors promptly, prominently, and add the correction to the original story on the website. Putting corrections in an inconspicuous separate column, where you usually can't even understand the original error in context (as, say, The New York Times and a host of other papers do) and you're not really running corrections at all.

UPDATE: Reader Jonathan Guest emails:

One of the things I've noticed over the years: Whenever I hear "journalists" discussing a subject that I know something about, airplanes, manufacturing, guns, even bicycling, running, essentially anything that I have SOME familiarity with, I notice that the journalist is utterly ignorant about the subject. I wonder, don't you have the same reaction about legal matters, nano-science, etc? I wonder if specialists of most every field have the same reaction, and because we don't discuss it directly, no one realizes that the average journalists knows just about nothing about nearly everything.

Yeah. I mean, I realize that generalists can't know as much as specialists know about their own field. But the number of butt-obvious boners (like "300 mm pistol") coupled with -- as above -- a perverse pride in ignorance ("we don't understand firearms or the metric system, tee hee") does kind of support this theory. I blame J-school for this. If I ran a newspaper, I'd make my new hires take a 1000-question general-knowledge exam.

UPDATE: Carter Wood emails:

My prospective boss, Hasso Hering, made me take a test before being hired in 1986 at the Albany Democrat-Herald in Oregon. Things like, "When was the Second World War?"

Apparently, lots of applicants failed even that.

Sigh.