Toronto Star, Globe and Mail own up to mistakes in 2010

As part of the traditional New Year ritual of looking back over the past twelve months, Globe and Mail columnists Margaret Wente and Jeffrey Simpson have written articles about the mistakes, assumptions and predictions that were just plain wrong in their columns in 2010, while Toronto Star public editor Kathy English apologizes for errors the paper made.

(While we’re on the topic, we can’t forget Ivor Shapiro’s honest (and hilarious) mea culpa, where an old-dog reporter, who just happens to be J-Source‘s ethics editor, explains how he learned, first-hand, that the new tricks of real-time reporting can be perilous. As a penance for the journalist’s first sin of not verifying before publishing, he assigned himself the task of writing out what happened — in Tweet style.)

Greg Kinnear, much more adorable than his TTC namesakeIn her column, English offers a list of the Star‘s mistakes, including an oh-so-embarrassing photo caption that identified TTC union president Bob Kinnear as the actor Greg Kinnear. (English says no one is to blame specifically, rather she points to a mislabelled photo uploaded to the Star’s computerized filing system in April.)

English writes:

“The Star published 328 corrections in 2010, down slightly from 347 in 2009. While no journalist is ever pleased about any errors, that’s less than one identified published error for every day the Star publishes. Not a bad track record given that we publish the equivalent of a book daily.

“On the accuracy front, last year proved to be a substantial improvement over past years. We published 425 corrections in 2008; 497 in 2007 and the all-time high of 512 corrections in 2006”

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some “doozies”, English writes. One article suggested a young men had been murdered by a gang, but he remains very much alive (his mother reported the error.)

hey, we're not good with sports references either“In June,” she writes, “while reporting on G8 security measures in Muskoka, the Star told readers that a local man ‘has a gun at the ready should protesters get by the army of police and soldiers scouring the brushes.’ In fact, what the man had said in a jovial way was: ‘I’ve got an Easton 32 in the house.’ ” (An Easton 32 is a baseball bat.) 

English boasts that the Star was not among those who reported on the (false) news of Gordon Lightfoot’s death, although it did run a correction after a Star employee used tweeted information about Toronto Maple Leaf Dio Phanuef’s leg injury that turned out to be false.

And, of course, there are plenty of misspelled names (full disclosure: in 2010 I live tweeted an event for J-Source and spelled Steve Paikin’s name wrong…and he was sitting next to me. D’oh.) In the spirit of journalistic accuracy and transparency, J-Source has just added a section to our site that lets readers see all our corrections.

In a column called: “2010: What was I thinking?”, Globe columnist Margaret Wente writes:

“Hell hath no fury like a mommy blogger.

“That was just one of the chastening lessons I learned this year. The fury erupted after I wrote a column wondering why blogging is such a guy thing. (Just check out our own blog sites.) I speculated that the explanation is connected to the male proclivity to seek status by showing off. ‘Men clearly have an urge to blog that women lack,’ I wrote. ‘Not many women are interested enough in spitting out an opinion on current events every 20 minutes.’

“I thought few people would take this tongue-in-cheek observation seriously. Wrong. The piece went viral, provoking outrage from every female blogger in the blogosphere. Who knew there were so many? They let me have it. I learned they feel ignored and marginalized. Many of them are moms with small children who specialize in terrorizing consumer products into product recalls. They certainly terrorized me. They reminded me of Newfoundlanders, who’ve never let me forget how grievously I insulted them back in 2005.”

Wente’s critics didn’t like her sympathetic piece about former media baron-turned-felon Conrad Black, or her take on Sarah Palin.

“Sometimes, I write something I wish I could take back,” she writes. She’s talking about a column she wrote about Canadian Omar Khadr, the youngest resident of the US’s notorious Guantánamo Bay prison. “Rather callously, I opined that Mr. Khadr is lucky to be alive, and even luckier to be on his way back to Canada, a land where he enjoys all the rights of citizenship even though he scarcely lived here. What I didn’t say (but should have) is that classifying him as an “enemy combatant” was ridiculous, and that there’s no excuse for the legal limbo in which he’s been imprisoned. And for all I know, Mr. Khadr might be a perfectly nice guy. Piles of readers shredded me for that and, in retrospect, they were right.”

In his annual, self-titled “falling on my sword ritual”, Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson lists mistakes and assumptions he made during 2010.

“‘News reports suggest that Mr. Netanyahu this time is serious about finding a two-state solution for his country and the Palestinians, and that he insisted on the one-year time frame for the talks.’

“What a load of nonsense from those “news reports,” which formed the basis for this false assertion in a column that appeared on these pages in 2010. Anyone who has followed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s career knows he doesn’t really favour a two-state solution, periodic declarations of his to the contrary. He wouldn’t even extend a settlement freeze to allow the talks to start, stiffing the Obama administration.

“Mr. Netanyahu knows he has the Obama crowd right where he wants them – helpless before the Republican majority in the House of Representatives and pro-Israeli pressure groups. So apologies to readers for letting hope stand in the way of clinical analysis.”

His blooper reel includes a column that predicts the Conservative government’s decision to scrap the long-form census would ruin “what little chance they had at achieving a majority” (it hasn’t), another that predicts a pre-budget election (wrong). There’s a story about a secession referendum in Scotland (never happened), and one about Harper’s intentions to “cut” foreign aid (which happened in real terms, Simpson writes, but in “absolute terms, the government will freeze the aid budget.”)

“The column failed, too, in asking the right questions often enough about the extension of Canada’s mission to Afghanistan, another example of the triumph of hope over experience, and the purchase of new fighter jets,” Simpson writes. “If anyone believes that $16-billion will cover the cost of buying and maintaining this unproven piece of kit, that person should immediately get the tree-planting contract for the Arctic.”