Craig Silverman offers advice on avoiding errors in news writing

In the days and months leading up to the United States presidential election of 1948, all of the pollsters were reporting the same thing: Thomas E. Dewey was a shoe-in shoo-in to win over incumbent Harry S. Truman. Even Truman himself thought he was doomed, so much so that, on the night of the election, he ate a sandwich, drank a glass of milk and solemnly went to bed in the early evening, not waiting to hear the results.

Hours before the results were announced, the Chicago Daily Tribune, now the Chicago Tribune, eager to beat out its competitors, released an edition of the paper with a front-page headline reading “Dewey defeats Truman.” Why not jump the gun? Everyone thought Truman was a goner.

But he wasn’t, and when Truman was announced as the president once again, the Chicago Daily Tribune became famous for one of the greatest newspaper blunders in history.

This is a large-scale example of errors in the news, but the reality is that small-scale errors happen all the time, said Craig Silverman, freelance writer and creator of the Regret The Error blog and a new bestselling book based on the blog, as he spoke to an audience at Ryerson University on Oct. 26 about the importance of being dogged in ensuring accuracy in the media.

According to Silverman, studies have shown that news articles published in the United States have a roughly 40 to 60 percent error rate, meaning that about half of all news stories in the U.S. contain some sort of error. The most recent study, conducted in 2007, found one of the highest error rates ever recorded and also discovered that, within the papers it studied (all American—no comprehensive studies have been done on Canadian newspapers, though it must be assumed that they are also quite error-heavy), only about two per cent of errors resulted in newspaper corrections.

“Not only are we making mistakes at a rather shocking rate,” Silverman said, “We aren’t correcting the vast majority, so instead of being the reliable purveyors of information, we’re actually polluting the information. We have this river of uncorrected errors.”

Silverman then went on to list the four most common errors:

Names and titles—These go wrong more than anything else, said Silverman.
Numbers and math—”Anytime journalists get their hands on numbers and math,” said Silverman, “There’s a huge probability that things will go wrong.”
Typos—You can blame spell check programs for some of these. It’s best not to rely on these programs.
Misquotes and misidentifications—”I’ve seen a lot of men become women, mothers become daughters,” he said. It can get really bad when identifications are mixed up and a crime is involved.

Silverman noted, however, that the tendency to make mistakes is one that lies within the human brain, and is always mean a writer is inept. No one is immune to making mistakes; our brains are hardwired to slip up occasionally and even the smartest reporters can’t rely on their brains to get things right 100 per cent of the time. He quoted James Reason to explain this: “It’s often the best people who make the worst mistakes.”

According to Silverman, there are three major things that can cause errors in newspapers:

Technology—Spell check systems, though helpful, can’t determine whether a word is used in the right context.
Production—Many errors are inserted by editors after a story has been handed in. “At any point in the process you could just as easily introduce an error as prevent it,” said Silverman.
Bad, bad journalists—These are reporters of the Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke variety: those who simply fabricate stories. This is, however, by far the least common cause for error, said Silverman.

But there are also a few tools that can help in preventing errors. “It’s not a very complicated thing,” Silverman said. “You don’t need a machine or 15 years of studying to become more accurate. There are just basic things you can do.”

Self-diagnose: Be aware of the mistake you’re making. Do you have a knack for spelling a certain word wrong, or for mixing up numbers? Identify these issues and you’ll be far more likely to catch the errors when they happen.

Create good habits: For instance, ask people to repeat good quotes if you’re unsure you got it down right, and always ask people to spell their name and title.

Use a checklist: Silverman says this is his simplest but best advice, because it gives you a process to follow instead of relying on your brain, which will result in a huge reduction of errors. Silverman has a sample checklist available for download at Regret The Error, but you could easily create your own. He suggests printing one checklist, having it laminated and using it over and over again with a dry-erase marker, thus avoiding having to print off a new one for each story.

And if inciting the ire of your boss isn’t reason enough to be diligent with your facts, it’s important to remember that if your piece ends up on the web you’re essentially submitting it to millions of error-catchers. Silverman calls these engaged citizens that mobilize and act as external fact-checkers the “new checkers.” 

“Crowd source fact-checking is now becoming a hobby,” said Silverman, who recently wrote a column for the Columbia Journalism Review that called fact-checking the “new great American pastime.”

“When it comes to accuracy,” he said, “people out there are going to be checking your work.”