The New York Times recently ran a wonderful piece from one of its copy editors that struck home with me, because I’ve had the exact same experience the story described.
The piece by David Vecsey, headlined “Because of an Editing Error,” started with a description of an experience that I frequently went through:
It is a feeling that every copy editor knows. You bolt upright out of a deep sleep at 3 a.m., eyes wide open, and you say to yourself, Did I misspell “Kyrgyzstan” last night? And nine times out of 10, you can go back to sleep comfortably knowing … that you did.
Well, for me, it wasn’t necessarily about the spelling of “Kyrgyzstan.” But I can testify that I had plenty of times when a worry about a headline — and typically, of course, this would be a banner hed on the top of page one, in 60-point or larger type — jolted me awake at the middle of the night. And making matters worse, of course, at those times when you bolt upright at 3 a.m., it’s too late to fix it: The papers have run off the press. They are in the process of being delivered to readers who will open their newspaper in the morning, immediately see the big mistake right at the top of the front page and snort something about how what the paper really needs is better copy editors.
Now, I always believed — and I still believe — that newspapers needed to set the bar low when it comes time to running corrections. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but true: If a newspaper is prompt and good-natured about correcting even the smallest error of fact, in the long run that helps build trust and credibility. The Times hews to that standard, as Vecsey delightfully describes in recounting some of its corrections. And the newspapers I worked at in Montana and Oregon also lived by that rule.
Which brings up my favorite story about corrections, which happened to me shortly after I was named the editor of The Missoulian newspaper back in 1998.
One of my first decisions was that the paper, every morning, would run a little box on page two — where our corrections ran — that invited readers to call me if they noticed an error of fact. Even if we didn’t have a correction to run that day, I wanted this box to run with my work number. I talked to my news editor to outline this plan.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
Yes, I said, I was sure, and again outlined my noble reasons for doing this.
The next morning, I walked into the office and quickly read through the paper. My requested addition was right there on page two. I was a genius.
A few days later, going through the paper in a more leisurely fashion, I took another look at our page two box, and something jumped out at me: The phone number listed, the one that was supposed to ring right through to my desk for readers to complain about inaccuracies, was inaccurate.
To this day, I don’t know whose number we listed; I never had the guts to dial it to find out if the person on the other end had been deluged with phone calls demanding corrections.
The next day, we listed the correct number. And, no, I never had the courage to run a correction about this.