A few years ago I asked my journalist friends on social media to share embarrassing stories about reporting or editing errors – things like spelling a name wrong or mangling a title – details that sound like little stuff but are really the mistakes that erode reader confidence in journalism. I shared them earlier this week with an first-year journalism class at Elon University. The professor, Kenn Gaither, told me later he enjoyed them immensely. Yeah, they can funny in hindsight, but not at all when the mistakes first occurred.
Here’s the list to keep as reminders about the importance of accuracy in reporting. People who read a story and see a name spelled wrong or a word used incorrectly or out of context will be skeptical of everything else in an otherwise solid story. Never undermine your own work by overlooking something you might consider not that important. To a reader it’s all important and should be to a reporter. Caution, some questionable language ahead.
“I didn’t research deeply enough and listed someone’s spouse by the name of a FORMER spouse…got quite a nasty letter over that one.”
“When I was a reporting intern in NJ, I was putting the finishing touches on a story. Checked and double checked everything. Except my own name. Since the copy editors didn’t know who I was, they assumed I spelled my own name correctly. My first front page story and my name was spelled wrong.”
“I used to have a fun time searching the Danville newspaper database and counting the instances a PIO was referred to as a ” pubic information officer.” Also, I remember that Ken Griffey Jr. once ‘shit a home run’”
“In the Jacksonville Daily News one time a sports writer identified the Crab House restaurant as the Crap House in a story about a fishing tournament. The reporter went to the restaurant and apologized to the owner face to face.”
“In a rush to get a story done, I typed chiropractor instead of orthopedic surgeon about a new doctor in town. He was a friend of the publisher. I knew I was in trouble when the doc called after it published and asked if I was OK. Boy, did I get chewed out when I got to work. It almost made me quit my job. After that, I closely checked all my stories — even the simple ones. I knew he wasn’t a chiropractor -brain freeze I guess.”
“The Jacksonville Daily News sports staff invented a new track and field event on the scoreboard page — the shit put. When the editor told the offending sports staff member about it he couldn’t help but give a sheepish grin. The editor told him, ‘Son, they’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you.’”
“Did a great in-person interview for college paper with one of my heroes, Arlo Guthrie. Spelled it Anlo in the head. He loved the story, sent a nice note. At the end, he wrote, “Anlo???” I will never forget it.”
“As an intern at the Charlotte paper, I noticed that misspell was, well, misspelled. The fun part? It was in a correction about misspelling something. That’s a good tale to teach students about reading EVERYTHING.”
“The times I’ve screwed up someone’s name, I absolutely beat myself up over it, even it was a nothing story. I literally wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘How could you have been so lazy and stupid?’ The first paper I worked for, there was a syndicated column posted on a bulletin board in the newsroom that included the line: ‘If a writer so much as gets wrong the middle initial of the person he’s writing about, he runs the risk of producing total garbage.’ I try to keep that in mind. I also remember what one of my former publishers would say when a fairly significant mistake found its way into print: “Everything they say about us is true.’”
“I wrote a story about a man who slid to his death down what I erroneously referred to as a ‘guide wire.’ A very nice man called and gently corrected me the next day, telling me the term is ‘guy wire.’ I appreciated it, but I was still embarrassed. It’s funny the things you don’t know.
“In grad school in Chicago, me and another student reporter misspelled the name of an upstart state senator named Barack Obama (we added an extra r). I remember the professor fixing us with her death glare and saying: ‘you better learn to spell his name right. He’s going to be president one day.’”
“Had a couple of part timers in Greensboro when I was doing preps. One took a call and turned in a story saying such and such school defeated the North Carolina School for the Death. Oops, that’s Deaf.”
“Working in Missouri I wrote a great piece about a starting QB named Chris Bloom. He came up and thanked me and turned to walk away and had Blum on his jersey. I shouted, ‘Did I spell your last name wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ he said but added that it was cool. Feeling sheepish I said well I hope I at least got your first name right. Actually he said it is spelled K-R-I-S.
“Years ago when I was a sports guy in Burlington I was doing a story on the new assistant general manager for the minor league baseball team. He had a very run-of-the-mill kind of name but because I knew sometimes people have different versions of routine first names I asked him to spell his first name: ‘J-o-n,’ he said, then added, ‘thanks for asking.’ I was pretty proud of myself for having the foresight to have the correct Jon as opposed to John. After the story came out the GM, Marty Nash, called to tell me that while it was great that I got the first name right, I missed the last name. It was supposed to be spelled Browne as opposed to Brown.
“I had an editor who once inserted a math error into one of my stories. Classic case of a journalist who couldn’t do math: He miscalculated a percentage. The lesson: Editors and reporters should all double-check numbers and how they’re expressed. With luck, at least one of the people involved knows how to do it right.”
Once wrote a column about a beloved 95-year-old who had spent life helping others in a small town on our outskirts. Her name was Ella. Her last name was so hard to spell I focused entirely on getting it right, which I did. For some nutty reason, though, I transposed Ella into Emma and referred to her throughout by the wrong name. I KNEW her name. Just wrote the wrong one. Headline writer picked it up, adding to the nightmare. I suffered through dozens of angry calls. Couldn’t I at least get her name right? Like I was a complete fool, which at that moment seemed plausible. I called Ella to apologize, just torn up. When she heard my voice, she started laughing. Thought it hilarious, a big joke on her — and me. Entirely generous. But I still live with the hollow feeling, that sick shock, when I realized what I’d done. (I share that one with my students, too. But you can use it.)