Friday, June 17, 2016

How not to write corrections

Amusing as the Times's rococo approach to burying errors in a thicket of relative clauses might be, the Freep's style of correcting mistakes -- the "should have said" bit -- is even more damaging to clarity. We have no idea what's being corrected; what "should have" been said doesn't tell us what was said and shouldn't have been. And corrections are supposed to be about facts, not value judgments. In the normative world of "should have said," any lede that begins with "it's official" would beget a correction on the order of "An article in Wednesday's Sports section should not have said 'it's official.'"

So what went wrong here? Let's look at the top first, and no, the Freep doesn't correct "all errors of fact." (If you went over to Dearborn to see the B52 Mitchell, you would have done better to spend your Memorial Day watching "Catch-22" and "Dr. Strangelove" back to back.*) It corrects errors if they come to its attention and if it considers them actual errors of fact worth correcting. That process by which "facts" slip into the gray area of subjective judgment is a bigger worry than the rate at which any institution does or doesn't run corrections:
The letter is specifically not about attacks "in Israel"; the writer is complaining about the lack of coverage of attacks against Jews in the West Bank, by way of hoping that attitudes toward settlement policy aren't tilting the board. Given the Freep's sometimes hilarious understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I'd bet on ignorance rather than bias, but if the Freep failed to correct this fairly binary headline error because, well, the whole Mideast thing is just something people disagree about, we have a much larger problem on our hands.

Anyway, while you put together a pool with your friends on how soon those errors** are corrected -- what do you suppose went wrong enough to merit a correction today?

Oh. It screwed up from the first word. It "should have" said Vernon Harris grew up loving hockey, because apparently it's about Vernon Harris, rather than Willie Norris. (Yes, that means the second sentence should have been corrected too.) And what could have been a touching and reasonably salient sidebar amid the welter of fulsome Howe coverage is borked forever.

The corrected version online is at least mildly frank in describing the nature of the error. But for print readers -- I'm counting those of us who read the print version online here, few as we may be -- "should have said" is really not enough.

* Actually, that's not a bad idea for most holiday weekends.
** Feb. 4 and May 28, if you're scoring along at home. 

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