Fact errors: Supervillain of J-school

multiple choice 004I was a 21-year-old journalist with unwarranted enthusiasm in my first month at a new gig at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette when the phone at my desk rang early one morning.

“Hello, this is [a woman] from the White House press office.”

My listening comprehension stopped.

When I recovered, I gathered my story about the vice president’s inaugural ball misspelled Lynne Cheney’s first name. I was still confused because I didn’t remember mentioning Lynne. But, I apologized and ended the call. (Later, we sorted out that copy inserted the name because I had written the sentence unclearly.)

My desk was sandwiched between award-winning reporters and a section editor who would become managing editor in a few months. Until that call, I tried to be the seen-but-not-heard kind. But, after that call, I needed to tell someone. I turned to the legendary Steve Twedt and spewed my confession. “What do I do?” I asked.

“Write a correction,” he said as if the White House called him once a week.

I turned back to my computer with cheeks ablaze and wrote that correction.

Every J-school has it’s version of the “fact error.” It is a rule that imposes a grade penalty when a student turns in a paper with an inaccuracy. We had them at Point Park when I was a student. At the University of Florida, I deducted 50 points (each assignment was worth 100 points) for each paper. Yep, that meant two errors and the student got a zero. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we deduct 10 points, which amounts to a little more than a full letter grade.

Students hate getting them.

I hate giving them.

Sometimes, these errors break my heart. A typo in changing “them” to “then” becomes a fact error when it’s part of direct quote. A near-perfect paper can be severely diminished by mixing up the digits in a house number.

So how do you avoid these errors and keep your grade (as well as your journalistic reputation) intact? Careful editing, of course. Here are some tips I suggest:

  • Make yourself a checklist of proper nouns, numbers, ect. Keep that reference sheet near you while typing.
  • Copy and paste. If you know someone’s name is tricky, type it carefully and slowly first. Then, copy that name and paste whenever you need to use it. Most fact errors in names happen during second or subsequent reference. We usually get it right the first time.
  • Use your word processor’s spell check. I don’t recommend relying on spell check, but it can be an aid for proper nouns. Type a difficult word carefully the first time, then instruct your word processor to ignore all uses of that word. It makes it a bit easier to spy misspelled uses.
  • Print and systematically edit. If editing on screen hasn’t worked for you, print a copy. Put a check over each fact in the story as you compare it with notes.
  • Say it simply. If you can cut the clutter, you can usually avoid fact error by sentence-structure-collapse.
  • Read aloud. Read it sentence-by-sentence backward. Set it down and read it again in three (or more) hours. Often, writers know what they want to say, so that’s how they read what they wrote. To catch syntax, grammatical and logic errors in addition to fact errors, trick your brain into reading what is actually on the page. These practices reduce the time you have to spend writing, but they will improve your quality.

Sometimes, fact errors are a judgement call. Beginning media writers use complex or wandering sentence structures that confuse meanings. Is poor writing that misinforms a reader a fact error the same way reporting an incorrect age is a fact error?

In these situations, I use a simple rule: Would the error require a correction? If the answer is yes, the student loses points.

Because the most embarrassing piece to write as a reporter is a correction. And, it’s a little bit worse when it’s at the request of the White House.

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