December 30, 2011

The Post published 875 corrections in the print edition this year through Dec. 30. That’s down from 1,054 in 2010, with one day left in the year. The 17 percent decrease is significant, and the total is the lowest for any year since The Post began counting in 2005, when it had more than 1,300 corrections, according to Managing Editor Raju Narisetti.

That is commendable, and reason enough for The Post to keep counting and to push harder for greater accuracy, fewer misspellings and fewer errors.

But it’s not the whole story about corrections. Errors online, where The Post has much more material than what appears in the newspaper, are not counted.

Narisetti said that counting the online errors is on his to-do list for 2012, but it is hard to do without the task becoming bureaucratic and time-consuming. Mistakes, minor and major, can be fixed online within seconds or at least within minutes of being spotted. Most often, with a minor mistake, the online material is simply changed with no notice to the reader.

If extensive corrections are made to an online article, editors usually append a note in italics pointing them out at the beginning of the story.

Are there lots of mistakes online? Well, yes, I have hundreds of reader e-mails during the year pointing them out. My hunch is that errors online are more numerous, but I have no hard data to back that up. Significant amounts of online content, particularly blog postings, get less of an editor’s time than do print stories and consequently seem likely to have more mistakes.

I’d like The Post to figure out a way to count its online errors, at least the more significant ones, such as fact inaccuracies and misspellings. And I also recommend that there be a page on the Web site, in addition to the printed corrections on Page A2 every day, where recent corrections are listed, both for print and online.

I do get involved in corrections on occasion. One this year involved a young inmate whose life was allegedly threatened behind bars because of a mistake in a July 8 article. Another involved an obituary for a prominent Washingtonian that wasn’t necessarily inaccurate, but it was certainly incomplete.

In an article about a conspiracy conviction of Raylen D. Wilkerson, who was involved in a December 2009 robbery that went awry and led to a man’s death, The Post reporter noted that three other defendants in the plot “testified as part of an agreement with the government.” Except it wasn’t true.

One of the defendants, Arvel Crawford, who accidentally killed his father during the crime, admitted his involvement, went to jail and did not testify against Wilkerson. Crawford’s mother and aunt called me angry and upset, saying Crawford’s life was being threatened in the D.C. jail because The Post reported this inaccuracy.

After calling the reporter, and checking with the attorneys involved, I learned that the relatives were right about Crawford’s not testifying. The reporter put in the correction request, but it still took The Post four days to publish it — the correction got shuffled around over a weekend. The inmate was not injured as a result of this, but he could have been. That’s how costly an error can be.

The obituary, about Harry L. Freeman, a former prominent executive with American Express, came to my attention when two of his daughters wrote me heartfelt letters, saying the article was unfair and incomplete. Yes, Freeman took responsibility for a late-1980s scandal in which American Express tried to smear a competitor, international banker Edmond Safra, and Freeman resigned from the financial services giant, the family pointed out.

But later in his life Freeman had significant accomplishments in trade policy and international development that The Post omitted from the obituary. The daughters were right. I called three experts in trade policy around Washington, and all three of them said that, without Freeman’s efforts, landmark changes to the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade would not have been included, nor would the GATT changes have passed in Congress. Those changes liberalized trade in business services, which greatly benefited the United States.

The obit desk published a 222-word clarification on June 22.

I made several errors this year too. It’s mortifying, but owning up to them and correcting them quickly is a necessary part of journalism, and of the pursuit of truth.

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@
washpost.com
.