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Posted at 05:26 PM ET, 09/19/2011

Post Roast: Correcting a correction

Post Roast will be a regular feature here on the Omblog. I’ll point out some Post mistakes every week, and the reasons behind those mistakes. I’m not doing this to embarrass anyone at The Post. People here work hard and strive to get it right. But sometimes they get it wrong.

Readers often remember the mistakes more than they do the successes. The ombudsman makes mistakes too, and I’ll let you know about those as well.

As we go forward with Post Roast, keep these things in mind:

There are 600 journalists here putting out a total of tens of thousands of words each day, print and online. I don’t think there’s any business in America with 600 people that does not make mistakes every day. But the Post’s mistakes are more public than most, they’re in print and online for all to see.

Some mistakes are more important than others. Things like factual errors, or missing a story, or making poor judgment on a story or a photo are important. Other mistakes are less important but still grating — poor grammar, mistakes in geographic descriptions, an awkward sentence, a duplicated word, a nonsensical headline.

Some of these mistakes merit published corrections, some of them don’t. We’ll explore that too.

Join us on Mondays, and other days as needed, for Post Roast.

Here’s our first Post Roast:

Back in February, The Post’s technology reporter, Cecilia Kang, wrote a profile of former senator Gordon Smith, a Republican from Oregon who was defeated for reelection in 2008 and became the head of the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents local television stations. The story nicely framed the debate over the sale of the broadcast spectrum and the broadcasters’ role in it. But Kang put in the story that Smith was age 55, when in fact he was 58.

The correction didn’t appear until seven months later, on Sept. 16, on page A2 of the print edition. By this point Smith was 59. But in some editions of the newspaper ,the correction got cut off in mid-sentence so it read like this: “A Feb. 13 Business article about Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, incorrectly said that he was 55 years old. Smith”

It ends in mid-thought with not even a period. It took a second correction the next day, Sept.17, to get the first correction right. “Smith was 58 at the time and is now 59,” the second correction explained.

So how did this happen?

First off, the NAB never told Kang of her mistake. “I’ll plead guilty, I did not call up and ask for a correction,” said Dennis Wharton, NAB’s executive vice president for communications. He said that when Smith read the story, “we chuckled that they made him three years younger than he was, and he was okay with that. It didn’t rise to the level of import for me to call her and say ‘By golly we need a correction.’ ”

Kang said that a sharp-eyed reader did tell her about the mistake after the story ran. “I knew it fairly soon afterward,” she said. “But it just slipped through the cracks. This was totally my fault. I screwed up here.”

She did finally tell Milton Coleman, the senior editor at The Post who helps shepherd corrections through to publication. Coleman, who has been particularly busy as president of the American Society of News Editors, said he had to remind Kang a couple of times before she finally got the correction ready for publication.

And then a production error on page A2 cut it off in mid-sentence.

So, a series of errors leads to a very late correction, and one that on the first try misfires. Ouch.

The moral of this story is first that reporters need to fact-check their own stories before sending them to editors, sources should call right away when there’s a mistake in a story, reporters and editors need to correct mistakes rapidly, as soon as they realize them, and the A2 copy editing and design team needs to be especially careful of the corrections box before it goes to press.

By  |  05:26 PM ET, 09/19/2011

 
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