Two-Minute Warning- Note to Journalists: We Can Be So Wrong

A few words about errors: the kind journalists make, how to think about them, what to do about them. This past year has been the Year of the Error for the journalism trade. Not Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair kinds of errors-those are not really errors but, for the most part, fabrications. Nor errors of judgment; that’s, as they say, a matter of opinion, and opinion-makers can change or revise their opinions. But if they’re honestly expressed and (somewhat) factually based, they’re not really “errors,” since they accurately reflect what a person is thinking at the time, even if you disagree with them. (I know this is a gray area here, deciding how factually based certain opinions are, but I’ll leave that for a later column.)

And I’m not, for the most part, talking about stylistic errors-word choice, tone, repetition. That’s a different matter, too. I’m talking about factual errors, quotation errors and, to some extent, conceptual errors and how to correct them.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a number of reasons. For one thing, the new realm of the “blogosphere” has focused attention in a more vigilant way on the errors made by “dead-tree journalists”-and by other bloggers as well. The ease of making corrections on the Web has made the exposure of errors made by dead-tree journalists-and the pressure to correct those errors-greater than ever. And it has opened up a whole new set of questions about the correction of errors. For instance, should a dead-tree publication correct its errors on its Web site as well as its hard-copy edition? Should an effort be made to attach corrections to the LexisNexis version of a piece? And even if one did that, is it possible to chase the uncorrected versions of a story proliferating on Web sites in the expanding universe of cyberspace outside a gated community on the Web like LexisNexis?

In addition, the Year of the Error has brought us the rise in prominence and influence of ombudsmen at major metropolitan dailies, culminating with The Times naming a “public editor,” in part to respond to readers’ complaints of error, although his brief extends to the tricky gray errors of emphasis, balance, agenda and judgment as well.

I’ll get into some of that in a moment, but I wanted to mention another reason I’ve been thinking about error. By chance, I’d picked up a copy of Scott Turow’s way-underrated novel, Reversible Errors . I say “underrated” because, while it received excellent reviews when it came out in 2002, nonetheless when I came upon it in a Borders recently, it was filed in the mass-market “Mystery/ Thriller” section rather than “Fiction/Literature,” where it deserves to be as much as any number of titles in that section I could mention.

I admit that while I was an admirer of Mr. Turow’s early works, I’d missed a few of the latest and was surprised at just how good Reversible Errors was: one of the most convoluted and ethically complex of his works. One which, without preaching or sentimentality, makes the case that the best argument against capital punishment is error, human fallibility. That even the most well-intentioned investigators for prosecution and defense can make errors, and when someone is executed because of one or more of those errors-and the failure to recognize or admit them-it is by definition an irreversible error.

Errors made by journalists, by contrast, are rarely life-and-death matters and rarely irreversible. In fact, they are eminently reversible, although they are, for a wide range of reasons, not always reversed. And here is why the Turow novel is particularly relevant: Perhaps if errors in journalism weren’t regarded as a capital offense, a mortal shame, there would be less reluctance to admit them and correct them. Maybe if dead-tree journalists adopted the spirit of the blogosphere, the spirit of humility that admits, “I’m human, I make mistakes, I’m happy if you correct me because we’re all engaged in the search for truth together,” then we’d all be better off.

Or if journalists adopted the spirit of scholarship exemplified by Professor Donald Foster when he admitted he’d made a very big error. Mr. Foster, you might recall, made a spectacular retraction of his attribution to Shakespeare of a nearly 600-line “Funerall Elegye,” an attribution that helped make his reputation as “literary sleuth,” an “Elegye” that was included (with reservations by editors) in three major American editions of the complete works of Shakespeare. (See my June 24, 2002, column on the subject).

When Mr. Foster retracted his Shakespeare attribution (because the work of another scholar had convinced him the “Elegye” was probably by John Ford), he wrote a beautiful sentence to introduce his confession of error: “No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar.”

At the deepest level, such an attitude reflects the philosophical stance of the late philosopher of science, Karl Popper: that the search for truth proceeds by means of falsification . That nothing can be called truthful unless it’s stated as a falsifiable proposition and continues to survive efforts to falsify it.

But for a long time, “dead-tree journalists” have been made to feel that to admit a mistake was tantamount to admitting they or their institutions were human, not the repository of Unchallengeable Truth. Perish the thought.

Before I get further into some of these questions, I want to talk about my own relationship to error-and what I’ve come to call the Two-Minute Warning Syndrome. (I’m a big pro-football fan.)

It’s curious to me now, but when I first started writing, I was less obsessed about making errors-I guess because I was just so happy to break into print. And more because of luck (and skillful fact-checkers), I don’t think I made an inordinate number of errors. I still don’t think I make an inordinate number-thanks again to luck and skillful fact-checkers-but I’m way more obsessed by the possibility. Or, to put it more accurately, desperately haunted by the specter of them.

So I spend much more time worrying about getting facts right, combing through my pieces, rechecking things-but nonetheless I know that it’s still possible for errors to slip through, to creep in, however diligent a team of editors, fact-checkers and copyeditors you may have working with you. This is why I always read every stage of a piece all the way till they virtually have to tear the second galley from my cold, dead hands. But this is also why some imp of mischief in my psyche has devised a special kind of self-torture-the one I’ve come to think of as the Two-Minute Warning Syndrome.

It often strikes after I’ve read the second galley and it’s time to let go and I’m trying to relax and wind down from closing a piece. And then, usually two minutes before the piece is shipped off to be printed, or some such gallingly late moment in the process, a question will suddenly surface from my unconscious. It may be the most minor of facts or dates or quotes, or perhaps a manner of phrasing that shifts the tone or meaning-and I’ll feel an almost electric shock of alarm. Often, when I hastily check or recheck what has alarmed me, I find there was no cause for alarm. But not always. Sometimes I’ll discover I made a mistake, and it will become a cliffhanger as I wait to learn whether it’s too late to do anything about it.

I’ll end up making hectic calls to whatever periodical is involved from wherever I am trying to get the change made, while everyone else in the paper is racing to get it out in time for the delivery trucks. And most of the time, I’m lucky to work with people who will put up with it-to a point-because they feel that getting it right is as important as getting it out on time.

Sometimes the Two-Minute Warning is about the way I chose to phrase something or characterize it, a stylistic matter, a cut I had to make, and I’ve come to think that, at that point, you just have to learn to live with it. (Although I’ve always believed that somebody would make a lot of friends in journalism if they established a Web site for what you might call the “director’s cut” of an article, the writer’s preferred, pre-cut version. I know I’d love to get the original, admittedly overlong 30,000- word version of my piece on Hamjlet textual scholars on the Web, for those clamoring hordes of people not satisfied with the approximately 10,000-word version that appeared in The New Yorker .)

But sometimes it isn’t possible to correct a factual error in time, sometimes it’s a key detail or quote-and no matter how minor in the overall scheme of things, it will ruin the entire experience. Leaving you lacerating yourself for not thinking of it until after the Two-Minute Warning. That’s why I’ve come to envy bloggers, who can update and revise instantly.

One too many cliffhangers can leave your nerves raw. I know I’m not alone in this. I know a number of writers who suffer from some version of the syndrome, usually because their conscientiousness has turned into hypervigilance, which can be good-but it’s hard to turn it off short of psychosis, not to mention pissing off the entire production department.

I’d like to think of it as part of “my process,” but really, there should be a better way. (One prominent writer I know has said that he will often show the pre-pub version of his piece to the people he writes about. It’s a good way of eliminating some errors, but can lead to sources trying to respin their original thoughts and, in some cases, skew their original truth-thus creating more significant distortions at times. It’s sort of the larger version of the long-standing reading-back-quotes-to-sources controversy.) And then what do you do when you’ve made a mistake, or you’ve had one called to your attention? I’ve always respected Steven Brill for the aggressive corrections policy in his publications: If it’s a correction of substance, it should run as prominently as the original story. (I just learned from a Washington Post editorial on the Romenesko site that the late Post editor Philip Geyelin was a pioneer in arguing that newspapers should be more open to corrections.)

It’s not the only correct way to make corrections; most newspapers have regular corrections departments these days. Slate publishes a weekly roundup of corrections in addition to inserting corrections noted as such (rather than just invisibly changing the error) into the original online version of the piece.

The Brill policy can sound hard-nosed, and it can be embarrassing to the reporter involved, but it’s fair to the reader and the subject. And, in a deeper sense-however temporarily embarrassing to the writer or editor who made the error-it’s more compassionate in the long run. Compassionate? Because the subtext of the Brill policy, it seems to me, is that journalism is a search for truth, not a crusade to prove that you are always right. And that the search for truth is a process of assertion and falsification that admits the fallibility of journalists and journalism, which is, as it’s famously been called, “the first rough draft of history.” It shouldn’t be shameful to correct a first rough draft. And making an admission of error less shameful and more a routine part of the process is good for writers and for readers, who will be likely to view journalists as less arrogant and more trustworthy. Fallible human beings like themselves. That doesn’t mean slacking off or lowering standards; it really means rewarding people for being more conscientious.

Because, of course, it’s impossible to be right all the time. I’ve always liked the couplet from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” about the way we’re all condemned to fallibility: “Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled,- / The glory, jest, and riddle of the world …. “

Of course, the difficult part comes in distinguishing purely factual mistakes (usually easy) from misjudgments, or from judgments made by a questionable interpretation of the facts (usually hard). The Times adopted a system that essentially dealt with the former through “Corrections” and the latter through “Editors’ Notes.”

Which brings us to The Times’ decision to engage a public editor, somewhat similar to the ombudsmen that many other major dailies have enlisted. I know that one writer friend of mine felt sorry for journalists she felt would be held up for shaming by a public editor. And another writer friend felt that editors at serious newspapers had so much trouble fending off the pressures of advertisers, corporate interests and organized pressure groups that ombudsmen in general would be used as vehicles for focusing undue influence on reporting that challenged vested interests. I don’t think that’s been the case so far, and although I empathize with those first subjects of the public editor’s scrutiny, I think that ultimately both readers and reporters will benefit from an independent airing of issues, one that is not beholden by fear or favor to the editorial hierarchy. I think that, on balance, it’s an extension of the philosophy that everybody benefits-reporters included-by more rather than less examination of the first rough draft of history. On the other hand, I would suggest that reporters challenged by ombudsmen should perhaps have a forum on the papers’ Web sites to discuss or disagree with such judgments.

One thing many people don’t realize is that magazines are far more likely to fact-check what they publish than newspapers and book publishers. Not all magazines maintain staffs of fact-checkers, but very few newspapers do ( The Observer is one, thank God), and very few publishers as well. (When I was preparing Explaining Hitler for publication, I engaged, at my own expense, an experienced fact-checker to double-check things, as a number of book authors I know have done.) Some publishers and newspapers ask copyeditors to do some minimal fact-checking, but things can slip through even the dedicated fact-checking departments at many magazines. And some zines, often the scrappy journals, take their cue from Michael Kinsley’s famous statement when he was editing Slate :

” Slate does not have a fact checking department or ‘fact checkers’ so labeled. We do have a group of people whose duties include making sure our writers are as accurate as possible. They are called ‘writers.’ And we have another group of people who skeptically examine what our writers produce and try to catch errors of fact …. These people are called ‘editors.'”

The cyberspace era has added a new dimension of trickiness to correcting errors. It’s easy for self-publishing bloggers, but what about dead-tree publications that have Web sites for the cyber-publication of their hard-copy pieces? You can correct it on the hard copy in the next issue with an “Erratum” notice. But then should you correct it on the Web site as well?

And if you correct it on the Web site as well, should it be by correcting it in the text , or with a note afterward? If the former, aren’t you then making it seem as if you never made a mistake (to say nothing of the fact that you’ve launched two different versions of the piece into cyberspace)?

And what if it’s discovered much, much later-after the piece has been pulled off the publication’s Web site but is still flying around cyberspace? Is there any point to correcting it? Should there be some way of attaching an erratum tail to its kite? And if so, should this apply to all errors, and if not, what’s the threshold for cyber-correction, the statute of limitations?

Some publications correct on the hard copy but not on the Web version; others do both. Shouldn’t there be some standard way of handling this, as more and more of what is published on paper enters the universe of the Web? (And shouldn’t reporters who are erroneously traduced by letter-writers not on the basis of differing opinions but of demonstrably false assertions have a chance to respond? Some publications offer their writers this right, some don’t. Should letter-to-the-editor writers be held to the same standards of falsification as the professionals if their assertions are launched into cyberspace?)

And what about book publishing? Most reviewers read so-called “uncorrected bound galley” versions of the book, which are accompanied by warnings to check any assertions made about the book in their reviews with the final corrected version-a warning often ignored by reviewers whose lead time often requires them to write about the galley version without seeing the final book. Writing books, like writing articles, is a process in which the writer can change his or her mind, and add or subtract from the galley version-but, in most cases, doesn’t get to go over the bound-galley version, which means the writer can’t catch errors or add any last-minute but crucial thoughts before review copies are sent out.

I know that when my last book, The Secret Parts of Fortune , was published, there were a few accidental typo-like errors in the bound galleys that changed the meaning or garbled the sense of what I was saying in the introduction, and I felt so strongly about getting the sense right in those bound galleys that I actually took a ballpoint and hand-corrected some of them before they were sent out.

And then what about the errors that you don’t catch in galleys? Correcting errors in already published books is difficult. (Should publishers consider doing it on their Web sites?) Scholarly publishers, and sometimes mainstream publishers as well (although far more rarely), sometimes include “erratum slips” if a significant error is caught in time for the first edition. Some will correct it in subsequent editions, if subsequent editions there are. The whole thing is too nerve-wracking.

And even though bloggers can almost instantaneously self-correct or “update,” some of them do it in separate posts, leaving the problem of many people linking to an earlier, error-marred post before the error is noticed and corrected-and so the beta version, so to speak, escapes beyond correction. Should bloggers somehow link to all those who linked to them before they corrected the error to make them aware of the correction after it’s made? I don’t even know if that’s possible.

I don’t have the answers to all these questions. I just raise them because I’d like to hear what other people who think about these things (journalists, bloggers, J-schools and readers) have to say-and because evolving some rough standards might make things fairer for readers and writers alike. So take it away, Jack Shafer of Slate , Jay Rosen of N.Y.U., Cynthia Cotts of The Voice -blogger pioneers Mickey Kaus, Jeff Jarvis and Glenn Reynolds-all you smart people who think about these things … take it away, please . I’m sick of my Two-Minute Warning Syndrome.

By the way, I’ve tried to include very few facts in this essay, but that’s no guarantee I haven’t made a mistake. I hear the Two-Minute Warning clock ticking now ….