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Four Reasons You May Be Seeing More Mistakes in the Media

A newspaper in South Carolina accidentally prints the f-bomb in a sports story.

A headline in a Pittsburgh paper is supposed to read “Suit Yourself,” but a strange reflection makes the “u” in suit look like an “h” – with unfortunate results.

Are errors increasing in newspapers (both in print and online)? And what about other broadcast and non-traditional media?

That’s what we asked Kelly McBride, who runs the Sense-making Project at the Poynter Institute. One of her jobs is to explain the emerging ways that information is created and consumed.

She says errors appear to be the on the rise, at least anecdotally, but, “It’s actually really hard to tell.”

That’s because it’s hard to know exactly how many errors are being made, and also tough to compare that to the amount of copy that’s being produced.

Let’s just say Poynter’s Regret the Error blog has plenty of fodder.

Lakeland Ledger Editor and incredibly-good sport Lenore Devore agreed to talk to us about her paper’s ongoing fight to prevent errors.

“We’re seeing more and more of them,” she said. “Not only do we not have the staff to do anything beyond get the paper out, but we’re not working slowly enough to catch things are as we go along.”

Here’s one example – Devore recently came back from some time off and…

“My voicemail was filled from angry readers, and they had every right to be, because we had used the word Medicaid in the lead story on A1 in the headline, instead of Medicare,” Devore said. “The whole story was based on Medicare.”

Increased Pressure + Fewer Workers = More Mistakes

McBride says there are four reasons errors may be increasing at newspapers:

-          There are fewer people working in newsrooms

-          They’re putting out the same amount of newsprint

-          They’ve added digital products (such as websites and blogs) that demand constant updates

-          At many newspapers and news websites, there are no longer dedicated copy editors that deal only with catching mistakes

Broadcast websites have the same issues and even fewer resources devoted to copy editing.

And what about purely digital websites, such as blogs? McBride says some are correcting their mistakes in a transparent way, but others are not.

In general, they tend to be less formal about making corrections, McBride said.

Everyone makes mistakes. Poynter itself recently conducted an audit of its own website. The staff discovered some patterns in the errors they hope to learn from.

What’s important, McBride says, is that media organizations take mistakes seriously. They need to prevent them when they can, and own up to them and correct them when they can’t.

“In this information age, where I’m literally standing at the end of a fire hose of information every day, I have a really hard time discerning what’s true and what isn’t true,” she said.

“If we get to the point where the public can’t trust any information, then…I don’t know that we can function as democratic society.”

One last note – McBride contacted several editors at Tampa Bay-area newspapers and found one that says their errors are decreasing: The Tampa Bay Times.

That newspaper says there’s been a decrease of more than 30 percent recently, McBride said.

She says one of the reasons may be the Times has cut back on the number of pages and sections it produces. Less copy means fewer chances for mistakes.

Scott Finn is a former news director at WUSF Public Media, which provides in-depth reporting for Tampa Bay and all of Florida.
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