Call it what you want. Flub. Screwup. Goof. Brain cramp. Slip.
Fact is, newspapers make mistakes. Reporters and editors make mistakes (I have yet to come across a reporter or editor who openly declares, "I never make mistakes"). Usually, we make mistakes that shouldn't happen, but they do for whatever reason. Sometimes it's a name misspelled (John when it's Jon). Sometimes it's the wrong date for event, or an incorrect telephone number. Or sometimes it's using their when you meant to write there.
When many of us make errors, we initially attempt to distance ourselves from our blunders. We may get defensive which is a natural reaction when our work is called into question. Or, we blame proofreaders, other reporters or editors. Or sometimes we blame a phantom . . . I have no idea how it happened, it was fine when I left the office! I guess it makes us feel less guilty.
Every journalist has an archive of flubs. But we tend to put those mistakes in a closet and never open the door for fear others will snicker. It can be as simple as an embarrassing typo: A recent fact box on an athlete contained the subhead Worth Nothing. It should've read Worth Noting. Oops. One extra letter can change an entire meaning.
Sometimes our flubs are serious errors. Perhaps you went digging through newspaper archives to fill out a court story, only to discover the next day at court that the 'background' in your story was wrong and has caused a mistrial (The lesson: Beware archives when writing court stories. Trials present evidence that may be different from what was known at the time of the incident).
I once had a typo in a 72-point headline. It was a page 1 headline. Let me put it this way, the Hubble telescope probably spotted it. Nobody missed it. Even my wife.
"That's brutal!" she scolded while reading the front page.
Yep, sure was. It screamed from page 1 louder than Janet Leigh in a shower.
OK, maybe I'm exaggerating. But you get the idea. It was bold. Really bold. Too bold for someone who misspelled of as fof. (More than once the following day, I told myself I was a fofing idiot.)
One tough lesson was reinforced that day: Don't just scan the headline. Read the words. Read the letters.
It took some sloppiness to refresh the need.
My most embarrassing mistake in journalism was almost 20 years ago. I was fresh out of j-school. I wrote a feature on young stars in a local minor soccer league. Actually, it was a feature on how girls were outscoring the boys in a co-ed league. I interviewed several girls in person and then scanned the team rosters for additional examples of outstanding girls. It was easy. Or so I thought. There, in my feature about the Lisas, Amys and Brittanys, was another girl named Stacey. Yep, Stacey was a female scoring machine.
Oops. Make that Stacey the boy. Too late. The newspaper was already published.
Next day the telephone rang in the newsroom. It was Stacey's mom. My mistake made her 11-year-old son the laughing stock of his school.
In a small community word travels fast. A reporter can be quickly labelled 'the one who can't do anything right' with one silly mistake. Fortunately, that never happened. I recommitted myself (even though I was barely six months out of j-school) to accuracy.
So, what could I do in the aftermath of my error? I arranged to meet Stacey at the local soccer field one day. We talked, but mostly he listened. I apologized. His mother thanked me. And I stayed to report on Stacey's game. In the next edition everyone would see Stacey -- the boy -- in action. On another page there was a correction blurb about my inaccuracy.
Never again did I ever make an assumption about the gender of names. I learned a tough lesson at Stacey's expense. It will never happen again to any male named Kim, Carol or Frances.
Take a moment to think about a mistake you've made in journalism. What did you learn from the experience?
Don't hide your mistakes. Talk about them. Learn from them. And help your colleagues avoid them.
The entire newspaper will be better -- and accurate -- because of it.
10 common errors
1. The Headline Horror. Usually happens when we're in a rush (there's another one of those famous excuses!). Or when we forget to doublecheck a headline with the facts of the story. Sometimes our eyes and brain play tricks on us. Several times I've spotted homicide spelled homocide in a headline.
2. The Cutline Caper. Usually involves people being incorrectly identified. Sometimes there are five people but only four named in the caption.
3. The Paraphrase Twist. It's a simple concept that often goes wrong. In an attempt to summarize what someone has said, we construct a paragraph and attribute it to the individual. The error occurs when we use words that misconstrue what the person said. The end result: You get an angry telephone call from the person screaming "I didn't say that!"
4. The Obituary Oops. This is one we really dread. It has many forms. An obituary says John Smith died in his 75th year. You write: John Smith died Thursday. He was 75. Oops. If John Smith is in his 75th year, he's 74. Always doublecheck the age. And don't forget to doublecheck other details. A person's life can be filled with dates and places that can get easily mixed up when it comes time to start writing your story. And it's really tough to tell a family that you screwed up the last story ever to be written about their loved one.
5. Name That Kid. In today's society, parents like to give their children original names. Or put new twists on old names. Either way, reporters can never assume that Henry is spelled Henry. Could be Henree. Or that Tom is spelled Tom. Could be Thom.
6. The Parent Trap. You write a human interest story on a family. There's mother Joan Johnson, father Bob Johnson, and daughters Ann and Gillian. In your story, you identify them all as having the surname Johnson. Oops. It's Joan's second marriage. Her daughters have the surname McGillicuddy from their mother's previous marriage. (P.S. Also see #8 The Assumption)
7. The Zapped Zero. It pops up at all the wrong times. Like when you write that a concert raised $500 when the correct figure should've been $5000.
8. The Awful Assumption. A car crash late at night claims the life of three teens. Based on unconfirmed information, a reporter makes an assumption that the teens were speeding and were likely drunk. The reporter ends up being wrong. Don't assume. And never assume that everyone is telling the truth. It never hurts to be skeptical.
9. The Math Monster. If math is one of your weaknesses (my hand is raised!) then it's best to have a calculator at your side, even for what appears to be the simplest of calculations. If you're not sure, ask a colleague to help.
10. The Old Switcheroo. The English language can be confusing. No wonder our brains and eyes have trouble communicating sometimes. There, their. Principal, pinciple. Your, you're. License, licence. It's, its. Where, wear. Everyone is guilty of the Old Switcheroo at one time or another.