WE IN THE MEDIA MADE MORE MISTAKES in 2016 than in any previous year, ever. I feel confident in baldly stating that as incontrovertible fact.
Where, after all, is the data to contradict me? And to whom would I have to apologize anyway?
Amid all the hysterical palaver about ‘fake news’ this year (another yugely fungible descriptor, like ‘mistake’) it’s worth reflecting that compared with all the year’s deliberate spinning, angling, massaging, distorting, satirizing and ironizing, plus of course plain outright lying … it’s those cases of misinformation caused by sheer ‘pilot error’ that have probably far outnumbered any other forms of misinformation, across all media.
Let’s start at the high end. Face it, the New Yorker magazine practically invented the job-title of ‘fact-checker’, and it’s also renowned for its ferocious proof-readers. (Working to some eccentric, decidedly sui generis house-style rules. Who else, for instance, insists these days on that arcane punctuation mark, the diaeresis, as in “coöperate”, or “reëlect“?)
What our noble and still-energetic 91-year old mistook in this case wasn’t a mere punctuation matter, but a matter of fact – and the sort of fact that’s very dear to the hearts of any journalist … just WHO wrote a piece. (There’s little more important in our world than an accurate by-line!)
In November the magazine proudly promoted to subscribers a very timely new article about an offensively outspoken President, in this case in the Philippines.
Two hours later came the shame-faced correction to what had been a bad (really bad) case of misattribution. The article was not, after all, autobiographical:
THE PROCESS OF CORRECTING wrong facts, of course, can be affected by readers’ and editors’ relative senses of judgment. Sometimes an error is (rightly or wrongly) deemed too insignificant to warrant correction.
But the Metro section of The New York Times seemed determined that absolutely nothing in the doggy world (or at least nothing doogy-ish in Brooklyn, September 2016) should escape its hawkish eye for precise detail.
That Times example demonstrates a telling beauty about on-the-record corrections. It’s not just the sensitivities of the unfortunate mistakenly-described subject, but those of the corrector as well, that can weigh heavily in the correction business. Feathers in both Tokyo and Dublin were clearly ruffled by a September Irish Times piece that ended up needing punctilious redress:
I also have to include corrections administered to a critic’s piece, since critics (including myself of course) tend to get a pretty free ride in this accuracy-driven space, on the grounds that we deal mostly in opinion rather than fact. I cringed (though in some sympathy) at a New York Times television review that, post facto, came to reveal less-than-optimal work practices. But as I say, I know from experience that this is, perhaps surprisingly, an easy mistake to make …
NO CORRECTION AND APOLOGIES collection could be complete without Britain’s The Guardian – given a caustic nickname by the satirical magazine Private Eye for its infamous, ceaseless misprints. The mocking moniker is “The Grauniad”, because the newspaper did actually once misprint its own name in just that faux-dyslexic fashion.
The prize-winning example this year was prompted by a book review from February so full of howlers that I can only, on grounds of space and repetitiveness, directly quote a few of the more egregious:
“A review of a biography of the former Editor of The Observer [David Astor] contained number of errors. In the article we suggested that William Waldorf Astor was named after a hotel, when in fact his name referred to the family’s native Rhineland village. He didn’t build Cliveden [the family stately home] as we suggested, but bought it … During the War, David Astor didn’t merely suffer ‘a mild attack of dysentery’, as suggested in the review. In fact he was wounded in action during a German ambush in the Ardennes … Astor was awarded the Croix de Guerre.”
THE CATEGORY of ‘Published Error’ has had (for THE MEDIA BEAT, at least) to be extended this year to include a newer bane of our lives – this time in a more private (we hope) realm of communication – texting. Or possibly worse, in Apple’s iMessaging app. The winner for me in this hotly-contested sub-category, best named ‘Atrocious AutoCorrects’, was this example submitted to the unfailingly entertaining site damnyouautocorrect.com
I’m grateful as in previous years to Alexios Mantzarlis who watches this terrain compendiously for The Poynter Institute … to the many friends and family who also keep a weather-eye open for me … and to the new specialist watchdog DYAC.