Mistakes matter in journalism

But everyone makes them — including me

Newspapers take mistakes very seriously, for good reason. A mistake printed and circulated in an issue of a newspaper cannot be erased.

With most newspapers having now migrated online, it is much easier to correct mistakes or remove content completely. Despite this, most newspapers follow the practice of not ‘unpublishing’ online content. The belief is that a story or column, once published, belongs to the public record. To change a story is to change history.

Still, mistakes inevitably get made, and newspapers usually have fairly clear guidelines for dealing with them. The Varsity outlines its policies for corrections in the “Recourse and Remedies” section of its Code of Journalistic Ethics.

If the mistake is only a typo or grammatical error, an editor will simply update the online story, and the error will be left to stand in the print edition. Anything more substantive is dealt with through an “Editor’s Note,” “Correction,” or “Clarification.” These notes appear at the bottom of a story when online content has been altered to fix an error. They outline both what was removed and what was added to a story in the process of correcting it.

I wanted to see how often The Varsity has issued notes so far this year, so I counted them. From September 1, 2017 to January 8, 2017, I found 18 instances where the newspaper issued an “Editor’s Note” and two instances where it issued a “Correction.”

How serious were these mistakes? At least a few were quite minor. Take, for example, the note that appeared at the bottom of a story published on October 2, covering Toronto band Birds of Bellwoods’ debut album, Victoria. The Editor’s Note that later ran informed readers that “an earlier version of this piece did not make mention of Victoria’s release date.” The story was updated accordingly.

Another minor correction was the Editor’s Note issued on an October 2 story on U of T’s Human-Powered Vehicle Design Team’s participation at the annual World Human Powered Speed Challenge. The note clarified that “a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the team placed third in the competition,” and the story was amended.

I worry more about mistakes that might negatively impact the reputation of a person or organization. I was particularly concerned about two of The Varsity’s Editor’s Notes for this reason. The first, for an October 1 comment piece on the controversy at St. Michael’s College (SMC), was needed to clarify that two facts in the original story — that SMC’s Director of Student Life planned orientation and that he supervised the lip-syncing contest to ensure songs were appropriate — did not in fact occur. The second corrected a mistake made in a story about an alleged assault by a former researcher with U of T’s Citizen Lab. The original story stated that the alleged assault occurred at a Citizen Lab event. In fact, it only coincided with the event.

The Editor’s Note that worried me most is the one issued on a November 19 op-ed on the referendum to defund the controversial Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). In a rare move, The Varsity pulled the published column from its website completely, explaining that “it was discovered that substantial changes — including a factual inaccuracy — were included in this op-ed during a stage in the editing process.” The column was replaced with a different version.

As the Editor’s Note mentions, the story was pulled for two reasons. The first was because, in editing the story, one of The Varsity’s editors made more significant changes than should have been the case, in particular, by rearranging several paragraphs. Opinion pieces reflect the voice of the person who writes them, and they should not be changed in this way.

The second was because a fact-checker accidentally put in the column that undergraduate students contribute $138,000 to OPIRG. The accurate figure is $38,000.

Which brings me back to the topic of mistakes, because I’d like to point out one of my own. I should have communicated the OPIRG column corrections to readers when they were made. At the time, I discussed the Editor’s Note with The Varsity’s Editor-in-Chief, Jacob Lorinc, and thought it was sufficient. The reorganization of the paragraphs had not substantially changed the author’s argument, I told myself, and the misreported figure of $138,000 had not affected the referendum outcome — it failed to achieve quorum.

I made a mistake. It is for good reason that newspapers so rarely remove content once it has been published. When they do, it is a serious matter, and it deserves more attention than an Editor’s Note at the bottom of a page. Readers should have heard more from me on this mistake, given its gravity.

A final note about the corrections The Varsity has so far issued. Half of these notes were issued in the first month, which I take as evidence that the newspaper’s journalists are learning from mistakes they made early on, or admitting less of them, though I hope not. I’d like to see this trend continue.

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