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THE OMBUDSMAN

More corrections or more errors?

SCRIBBLED ON a hot pink Post-It and taped over my ombudsman desk is an enduring bit of reader wisdom. It says, "Readers don't expect the Globe to be perfect, just fair."Given how many errors the paper made in 2003, it's lucky perfection is not required.

 

The Globe closed out 2003 with a record number of published corrections -- 1,223, up from 901 the year before. The increase is more than double the previous year, which in turn was almost double the year before that. Together they send the trend sharply upward from where it had hovered for a decade.

There are dueling interpretations of the 2003 numbers:

* Explanation A: It's not that the Globe is making more errors but that, unsettled by the Jayson Blair incident at The New York Times, the Globe, like other papers, is working harder to find and correct all mistakes. The effort is evident in, for example, the invitation to readers that began running mid-year on Page 2 asking them to help spot mistakes. Add to that a willingness to correct even small errors, the kind that once died a quiet death on an editor's desk, and it explains the increase.

* Explanation B: The paper's staff is making more mistakes.

There is no way to tell which is correct, of course, since no one knows how many errors slipped by in the past. But the two explanations are not mutually exclusive. I believe Explanation A does account for much of the increase. The Globe corrects smaller errors, such as misspellings, that went uncorrected before, and the new fax, phone, and e-mail system set up in July to take corrections has certainly made it easier for readers to report errors that once might have gone unnoticed.

Whether that explains all 322 additional corrections in 2003, I do not know. Editor Martin Baron believes it probably does. "It's hard to say," he says, "but I would think so."

But maybe that's not really the question. Errors, whether more or less than in a previous year, are still errors. And 1,223 is not a small number (even if it does include a few dozen clarifications and omissions mixed in with the corrections that give the category its name). While many of the errors may be minor -- and pale in importance compared with matters of fairness and public service -- they do affect a paper's credibility. So what can the paper do to make fewer mistakes?

One strategy is already in place: In July the Globe began an accountability system that lets the paper track who is prone to error. "With a couple of reporters we have already had discussions, and those discussions were highly productive in reducing errors," says Baron. The paper has also held a training session on how to fact-check a story. The paper should be proud of those efforts.

I look forward to seeing them accompanied by a cultural shift, already underway, that puts as much emphasis on getting stories right as it does on getting them first. To make that happen, staffers must be given the time and support needed to make fact-checking a routine part of their duties, even if that is sometimes difficult in an era of tight resources.

In search of some context for the Globe's jump in corrections, I surveyed other ombudsmen. Of the one dozen responding, almost half reported that their papers had fewer corrections or no significant change in 2003. Of those who had increases, the jumps were, for the most part, relatively modest. While other papers said that they, like the Globe, did try harder to correct all errors in 2003, they also redoubled efforts to catch mistakes before they made it into print. The two efforts seemed to balance each other out, resulting in little change in the bottom line at many papers.

At the Globe, statistics on corrections are compiled by the diligent library staff, directed by Elisabeth Tuite, and organized to provide some useful insights:

* The most serious kind of error -- "misquotes" -- accounted for 12 of the 1,223 corrections overall. "Misrepresentations" and "misstatements," which also included some serious errors, numbered 260 and 72, respectively.

* Errors by editors, 318, increased at a greater rate than those by reporters, 695.

* 111 stories had more than one error.

* Almost two thirds of corrections appeared on Page A2, reflecting a new policy to group corrections in the more visible location. Still, more than 400 appeared in the varied sections where the original errror occurred.

* While a few reporters were deemed responsible for as many as eight mistakes, most listed had just one.

* The rate of corrections increased after May 10, the day before The New York Times revealed Jayson Blair's errors.

Baron, the Globe's editor, says that while he wants to see the error rate come down, "I worry more about whether we correct the errors we make, and whether we make sure we make fewer mistakes in the future."

I applaud the paper for being aggressive in setting the record straight. I also accept that some errors can't be prevented. But the vast majority can -- giving the Globe ample opportunity to improve in 2004.

The ombudsman represents the readers. Her opinions and conclusions are her own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is ombud@globe.com.

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