To err is human, but at The Post staff members are supposed to fess up early -- and as often as need be -- when they goof. That does not always happen, despite an official policy that says: "This newspaper is pledged to minimize the number of errors we make and to correct those that occur. Accuracy is our goal; candor is our defense. Persons who call errors to our attention must be accorded a respectful hearing."
Sometimes errors are doozies, as were those in a July 4 review in Book World that generated about 200 calls and letters, prompting this editor's note on July 25: "In a cover piece about three World War I books, our reviewer misstated the outcome of a war, our editors failed to catch it, and the mistake got into print."
Errors often occur when reporters and copy editors forget a simple thing: Look it up. A July 29 article about Vice President Al Gore campaigning among Hispanic Texans said: "In 1996, President Clinton received 72 percent of the Hispanic vote, a margin that helped power him to victory in such key states as California and Texas." Clinton won in California but not in Texas, a fact easily ascertainable in the various databases that The Post makes available to the staff. A correction ran July 31.
Errors also occur when reporters rely on sources without verifying everything that they've said or that the reporter thinks they said. The July 28 installment of a seven-part series on George W. Bush read: "In addition to Bush . . . many socially or politically prominent young men were admitted to the Air Guard, according to former officials; they included the son of then-Sen. John Tower and at least seven members of the Dallas Cowboys." Tower had three daughters but no sons; one of the reporters, George Lardner, misunderstood what a source said -- and did not check his facts.
All this is understandable if indefensible. Reporters assume sources are accurate; copy editors assume reporters or other editors who've had a hand in a story verified the information, and so on. Vincent Rinehart, the copy desk chief for the national desk, said his team of nine copy editors routinely catches "typos, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, awkward wordings -- and factual errors." But sometimes they blow it. "That's the life of the copy desk," he said. "You defuse 99 bombs and the 100th kills you."
Despite The Post's official policy of "candor," too many readers complain that the staff gives them the brushoff. ("We're not going to run a correction for something that minor," some are told when they point out factual errors.) The Post also substitutes letters to the editor for formal corrections, as was done July 25 when a letter writer pointed out -- correctly -- that Lloyd Rose was wrong when she said in a June 30 theater review that French playwrights Moliere (1622-73) and Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763) were contemporaries. Running a letter is hardly being candid with readers; nor is this form of "correction" appended to the original article, leaving future readers in the dark.
Leonard Downie, the executive editor, says: "Errors should always be corrected. It's part of the contract we have with our readers." That is a message that needs to be sent more loudly and clearly to everyone at The Post, from copy aides to editors.
And by the way: For all you readers who complained that The Post seemed gaga for Bush while ignoring other presidential candidates, your voices were heard. At the conclusion of the series on July 31, there was this explanation: "This series is one of a number of in-depth examinations of the lives and records of presidential candidates that The Washington Post will publish over the next year. In the coming months, other Republican candidates, as well as Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley, will be profiled."
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