Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Testing The Union's error-correction process

Wed. Nov 30 update: received reply from Kady[The Union's web editor] explaining how corrections are supposed to work.[in this case, they didn't]

April 2006 update: 5 months later, the column remains uncorrected.


In a recent post The Union's web editor, Kady Guyton, gives instructions on how to report errors in the paper:
If you - the reader -see something in the paper that you believe is false, picking up the phone and calling the reporter or Editor... will go a lot further to getting the the right information out there [than sending anonymous, hyperbolic and utterly nonspecific rants]. Email will also work...

Here's a test case, with emphases added. The error I reported is clear-cut, but not major; I reported it as much to test the process as to see the error corrected.

So far, the results have been interesting.

A recent column contained a misstatement:
...remember the Spanish Flu of 1918?
In case you missed that class, one of every five humans on Earth died during that pandemic.

This didn't sound right, and didn't match what I found with a quick check on Wikipedia, so I emailed the columnist that same day:
[some other questions which seem to have caused high blood pressure*, then:]
...you said that it was estimated[oops,no-was presented as fact, not as estimate] that 1 in 5 people died in the 1918 pandemic - is there a source for this? Wikipedia and other sources typically estimate that 5% died, i.e. 1 in 20.

The columnist's response:
[responses to the other questions indicating raised blood pressure*, then:]
... There's a great book on the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza.
If you are interested.
[nothing else related to the pandemic mortality numbers]

So if I ask "is there a source for these numbers?" and am told "The Great Influenza is an excellent book on the topic", this is saying that the numbers came from the book, right?

Apparently not: from p. 397 of The Great Influenza* (which is a great book on the 1918 pandemic; I've read it):
... the upper estimate [of mortality] would mean that [during the pandemic] ...in excess of 5% of the people in the world died.

I emailed him back, asking straight out:

I [had] asked
> > ... you said that it was estimated that 1 in 5 people died in the 1918 pandemic - is there a source for this? ...

you [had]replied:
> There's a great book on the 1918 pandemic called The Great Influenza.

was this in answer to my question, or was it just a tangential comment?

He backtracked:
They really don't know how many people died from the 1918 pandemic. I think it's sufficient to suggest that the numbers were more than significant.
I suggested the book by John Barry because you seem to be interested...

The columnist is The Union's publisher; the rhetorical maneuver* is a dishonest implicature; it's not the first (and not the second).

To quote Jay Rosen out of context: "It's a small thing, but it's a small thing that speaks to an attitude". And to an M.O.

Resolution of error: as yet unknownNone. I next reported the error to the editor, which was somewhat cruel/unfair given that his boss had committed/excused it; the editor suggested that its being within a black-humorous column might make it less significant, and said I should take it up with the writer/publisher, which* I had already done, as recounted above.

So far, I've seen no correction. Tonight I've emailed Kady the web editor, whose "how to report errors" post led her unwittingly into the fray, to ask how corrections are typically handled, but this too is unfair as I'm putting her in a position where she'll be implicitly criticizing her manager(s) if she were to answer*.
(her reply)

there comes a point when to continue is just being brutal...Sorry, all.


(What is it about fives and correction-resistance, anyway?)

Another thing that struck me was the possessive pronoun the publisher used in email: it's his paper, not Nevada County's paper. Which, when combined with a fairly absolutist conception of property rights, explains a great deal.

What the Nevada Press Association was told last year:
Based on conversations across the country...people believed newspapers were unfair when they get even the smallest facts wrong such as age and name spelling, refuse to admit errors, use anonymous sources who criticize or attack ....
Shelby Coffey, Freedom Forum senior fellow and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, discussed how leadership qualities could bring positive changes in the newsroom....
"Management is about doing things right," Coffey said. "Leadership* is about doing the right thing."

Bonus link - former NY Times reporter Doug McGill has questions for and recollections of its publisher.

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