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A Letter From the Editor: It All Goes on the Permanent Record
By GAIL COLLINS, New York Times
Published: October 2, 2005
MOST readers probably presume that those of us who write and edit newspapers hate corrections. That's not entirely true. If an Op-Ed article or an editorial says James Madison died in 1835 and a reader points out that it was 1836, we will run a correction with a certain satisfaction -- the same feeling of painless virtue you get when you tell the grocery cashier that yes indeed, your 53 cents in change can be donated to the March Against Diabetes.
Admittedly, we're sometimes a bit taken aback by the note of triumph in a reader's voice when he or she calls to point out that -- to cite one recent example -- an Op-Ed article about events that occurred in 1955 referred to the United States Postal Service when back then it was called the United States Post Office Department. And errors in minor factoids are, unfortunately, only one category of corrections. There is, in addition, the medium-size dumb error -- the kind of mistake that causes the author to beat his or her head against a desk and seriously consider switching to the growing field of air-conditioner repair. I once wrote an editorial about Senator Bill Nelson of Florida in which I referred to him as Ben Nelson of Nebraska. An editorial about subway service in Manhattan mixed up the proposed Second Avenue subway with the century-old No.2 line, which runs down the other side of the island and which, as our correction noted, a number of us ride to work every day.
We correct all errors, from heart-stoppingly egregious to sublimely insignificant, because we believe that The Times should take its reputation for accuracy seriously. It's also an important discipline. We want to cultivate the reflex that automatically fixes any inaccuracy, without whining. But mistakes of significance are much more urgent than minor ones. They need to be corrected quickly, and in a way that guarantees the fix is seen by as many people who read the original piece as possible.
The most important motive for correcting the minor glitches is history. These days, everything we publish is stored not only in the Times archives and commercially available archives, but in the files of an army of search engines. We don't want a college student of 2050 to come up with the wrong year for James Madison's death because of our error -- particularly not when we have the means to amend the record. The news section of the paper publishes this kind of corrections in a separate For-the-Record listing. That seems like a good idea -- particularly because it makes it easier for readers to notice the other kind of corrections, which really make a difference. Those shouldn't get lost amid the misspelled names and miscalculated dates.
From now on, we're going to use a similar system. A ''For the Record'' column of errata will run under the editorials whenever it's appropriate. The first one appears today. It corrects several misstatements about when Joe Allbaugh, the former FEMA director, met his successor, Michael Brown, now legendary as a disaster in his own right. Although there have been multitudinous references throughout the media to the two as former college chums or college roommates, they in fact went to different schools. A spokeswoman for Mr. Allbaugh says that while they have been close pals for a long time, they met after graduation. Obviously, if we're debating the serious issue of allegations about cronyism at FEMA, a friend is a friend whether the relationship was born off campus or on. That's what makes this one perfect grist for ''For the Record.''
There is another, Godzilla from hell kind of correction that generally requires lengthy explanation and often appears under the heading of Editor's Note. Sometimes these involve serious errors that require a full and somber dialogue with the readers. Sometimes they're much less important, but so complicated that unraveling the story requires an explanation that threatens to rival ''Bleak House'' in length.
The Op-Ed columnists, most of whom are limited to just over 700 words twice a week, have a particular problem with the Moby Dick genre of corrections since they eat up so much of their space. Nevertheless, in the four years that I've edited these pages I've never had a columnist refuse to make a correction, no matter how complicated. (To set yet another record straight, Frank Rich made a good faith effort to correct his FEMA-friendship error within a subsequent column but was castigated for failing to follow procedure and put the fix at the bottom of his piece, following the word CORRECTION. Frank, who never hesitates to amend errors, was writing for another part of the paper when we clarified, publicized and chiseled into stone the current policy. He should have been briefed when he returned. He wasn't.)
A classic case of correction run amok involved a column that Paul Krugman wrote on Aug. 19 about the Florida recount in 2000 in which he said that two different news media groups reviewed the ballots and found that ''a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. Gore.'' That was incorrect. Paul tried to clarify things in his next column, but the public editor, Byron Calame, objected that since nothing in the second column was labeled a correction, the original error would survive in the permanent record.
Paul published a correction in his next column. Unfortunately, the correction was based on information published in The Miami Herald that was wrong and had never been formally fixed. Paul appended another correction to the Web version of his column, but asked if he could refrain from revisiting the subject yet again in print.
I agreed, feeling we had reached the point of cruelty to readers. But I was wrong. The correction should have run in the same newspaper where the original error and all its little offspring had appeared. Here it is:
In describing the results of the ballot study by the group led by The Miami Herald in his column of Aug. 26, Paul Krugman relied on the Herald report, which listed only three hypothetical statewide recounts, two of which went to Al Gore. There was, however, a fourth recount, which would have gone to George W. Bush. In this case, the two stricter-standard recounts went to Mr. Bush. A later study, by a group that included The New York Times, used two methods to count ballots: relying on the judgment of a majority of those examining each ballot, or requiring unanimity. Mr. Gore lost one hypothetical recount on the unanimity basis. GAIL COLLINS