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Regrettable errors

I’ve always thought that one of the charming things about newspapers is the way they fess up to errors. The practice probably has its roots in law — making that correction to avoid getting sued — but it is consonant with publications’ efforts to maintain credibility with accurate reporting.

If you enjoy that sort of thing, at the Web site Regret the Error, Craig Silverman republishes the daily corrections of the news media, along with an annual summary of plagiarisms and other misdeeds.

We don’t typically run corrections of typographical errors or slips in grammar and usage (Complaints about the latter categories tend to be funneled to me); instead we correct errors of fact or omissions. I recall a correction from many years ago about a recipe for hearty cheese soup that had omitted the instruction to add half a gallon of warm water. Anyone who attempted the recipe as originally published is probably receiving high colonics to this day.

Superstitions accrue to newspapers like barnacles to the hull of a ship.* The superstition about corrections is that one must not repeat the original error. This, too, probably has a legal root, out of apprehension that republishing the error could widen exposure to a lawsuit. But observing this superstition leads to opaque corrections like this one from The Sun, one of my favorites:

In early editions of The Sun yesterday, the wrong sea turtle was pictured being released in Virginia.

It was corrections like this that led a former editor to issue a firm instruction that the error may be repeated in a correction whenever it is necessary for clarity.

I wish newspapers had more editors firmly insisting on clarity.


*Probably the most widespread superstition is the prohibition on whistling in the newsroom. I was told when just a tyro that it originated because someone was whistling in the newsroom of a San Francisco newspaper at the moment of the great earthquake of 1906.





Posted by John McIntyre at 7:39 AM | | Comments (15)


And here I thought that an editor who (understandably) was annoyed by whistling invented that whistling superstition.

Speaking of regrettable errors, I am pleased to see that the Sun has finally dismissed of its ridiculous idea to run full- body shots of its columnists. In a time of shrinking pages and sections, that was such an absurd waste of space and was widely ridiculed by readers.

I'm glad the paper has come to its senses, although I'd love to see someone issue a mea culpa and admit to its mistake. Come to think of it, I'd love to see anyone at the Sun admit that most of its design decisions in the past few years have been nothing short of horrible.

In effect, it has alienated its subscribers -- its paying, most loyal readers -- chasing young people who won't buy their product anyway. What an awful business model.

Granted, this isn't on the subject of copy editing, but is very much on the subject of regrettable errors in the Sun, which seems to publish a new blog every day, but alas, doesn't have the time/room/inclination for one where readers can discuss the actual printed newspaper.

JEM: You just had your say here, didn't you?

I don't think you actually need to repeat the error for that one. It should say something like: "In early editions of The Sun yesterday, the wrong sea turtle was pictured being released in Virginia. The turtle shown is a Virginia sea turtle, Odocoileus virginianus."

My learned colleague Steve Auerweck has in his files a clipping of a Sun correction for a Heloise item advising that carbon monoxide will stop hiccups. He is adamant to this day that the column was factually accurate.

Not to go all Wikipedia on you, but does it really matter all that much that the incorrect turtle got his picture in the paper?

(I acknowledge that I have no context for this question, as I didn't read the incorrect story in the paper.)

Inhale enough of the carbon monoxide and you can't argue the correctness of the statement, I guess.

You note that typos wouldn't receive a correction, but I imagine that a typo which significantly changes the intent of the sentence would be corrected. "The victim spoke to the rapists" is quite different from "The victim spoke to therapists", for instance.

One might question whether a turtle would even care if the correct picture was used, but how would you feel if the blogware hiccuped (again) and put my name on your posts? I probably wouldn't mind since your posts are usually more interesting than mine, but you might. Especially if I started getting good comments for "my" post.

Ah, but Claude--that is an error of fact. The face that the error originated with a typo is not relevant.

As for the turtle, it might not matter whether it was Bill the Snapping Turtle or Bob the Snapping Turtle, but it does matter if an Eastern Box Turtle was identified as a Three-Toed Box Turtle.

I *love* the superstition about not whistling in the newsroom. I'd never heard it--but then, I've never actually worked in a newsroom; I'm in magazines. I've always felt bummed out that we didn't have any superstitions like those in the theater regarding the Scottish Play.

R-i-E and Tally Sue - Context matters and that's why I acknowledged that I didn't have context. But if the story was, for example, about a turtle resuce organization that nurses turtles back to health and releases them into the wild, and the pictue simply misidentified what kind of turlte was being released, I'd say, "So what?"

If the story was about the...uh...Eastern Box Turtle...being an endangered species and this was supposed to show one being released to establish a new breeding population in the wild, I'd be more inclined to correct it, if a Three-toed Box Turtle, which we all know is so common as to be classified as a pest, was shown.

R-i-E - Don't sell yourself short. There are plenty of days when I would gladly assume your identity.

RiE and Bucky--here's a big ((virtual)) hug for you both!

Best correction EVER:
At my former paper (and yes, RTE picked this up if you want to search the site), roughly paraphrased:

Tuesday's article on heroes of Black History Month misidentified the group that John Smith belonged to. He was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, not part of the Tuskegee Experiment.

(Note: Yes I was at the paper, no I was not on the night desk at the time.)

I need a proofreader.

Alas, The Sun will never admit its greatest errors. Instead, it will continue eating its own.

I heard that the Sun let the best copy-editor in the country loose. I think that was a big mistake. Let me know if you need anything John.

Similarly to Mr. Auerweck, my solution for people that are unable to get rid of the hiccups is to tell them, "Hold your breath until I tell you to stop," then walk away.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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