Last Sunday, The Star’s reader representative, Derek Donovan, wrote a column about the number of corrections in the paper having dropped between 2009 and 2010.
He wasn’t bragging, just laying out the raw numbers. Deep in the column, he also put forward a weird idea: To create two tiers of errors — significant and insignificant.
Maybe they could be presented under the headings “mortal” and “venial.” (That’s my idea, mind you, not his.)
First, if Donovan is looking, in his low-key way, for a gold star for the decline in corrections, he’s not going to get it from this here blogger. In fact, in my book, The Star’s treatment of corrections has earned them a big, scarlet “C” that the paper should be forced to put on Page 2 every day for the next year.
Page 2 is where The Star used to run all the news-related corrections. Every day, you could go to Page 2 and see how the paper had screwed up. A few years ago, they changed it, though. Now, the corrections run somewhere, but the editors often make the reader guess which shell the pea is under.
There are two main reasons that the number of corrections is down at The Star.
:: The news hole has gotten smaller, and circulation continues to dwindle.
Donovan reported that the paper published an even 300 corrections in the print edition, out of about 41,000 separate stories. That compared with 383 corrections in 2009, when the paper ran about 46,000 stories.
So, that’s an 11 percent drop in stories and a 22 percent drop in corrections. Donovan rushed over the story-count dip like it was a beaten-down speed bump, but, frankly, that should be a much greater source of concern to the paper and the readers than the correction rate.
How often do you hear people say, “There’s nothing to The Star anymore?” It’s not an illusion; it’s simply not offering the readers as much for their money as it used to.
As the story count has dropped, so has the number of subscribers and readers. And when fewer people are seeing the paper, not as many corrections are caught. It’s the readers who report most of the corrections. The reporters tend not to self-report their own errors for fear of getting dinged in their annual performance evaluations — and maybe even their paychecks.
:: The Star has made corrections a lower priority.
By depriving the corrections of a permanent home (as Page 2 was), The Star has signaled that it does not place as high a value on the corrections as it once did. Believe me, the reporters get that message, and most of them probably aren’t complaining.
During my many years at The Star, I lived in constant fear of winding up on Page 2. And, unfortunately, I made it there quite a bit. Once, in fact, I made a reporting error that, naturally, required a correction. But then I made an error in the correction. And so we published a correction to a correction.
Talk about mortification!
As tough as the policy was, though — and as conspicuous as the corrections were — we knew that our feet were being held firmly to the fire. It was good for the paper and good for the readers: full disclosure; no slip-sliding around.
I’m not saying The Star wouldn’t run a correction to a correction now. I’m sure it would. But now that it’s under siege, financially and otherwise (like many other metropolitan dailies), I think the handling of corrections has been allowed to drift a couple of rungs down on the priority ladder.
And now Donovan is tossing out the possibility of dropping corrections to an even lower level. In his column, he proposed two tiers of corrections — one for “significant factual errors” and one for “mundane, often mechanical mistakes.” As examples of insignificant mistakes, he cited the misspelling of celebrities’ names and erroneous TV listings.
Now, Donovan is certainly right that some errors are more significant than others, but establish separate tiers? No way. The first and perhaps biggest problem would be who decided which category the errors fell into.
Well, I guess that would be our helpful readers’ rep. But that’s an awful lot of discretion to give to one person, or even a committee, and I could foresee constant battles with readers and “error victims” over whether a certain error qualified as significant or insignificant.
Can you envision a correction that said: “Yesterday’s correction on the misspelling of Harry Truman’s name was improperly placed in the insignificant error category. We regret both errors.”
So, what’s the answer: Treat all corrections the same. And, please, go back to putting them in the same place every day.