First the good news. The growing volume of material The Globe publishes – especially online – has not led to an increase in the number of errors being made. Two years ago saw a notable decline in published corrections and, now that this year is drawing to a close, I see there are still around 40 a month, down from the previous 50 to 60.
And the bad news? Names and numbers continue to be the top categories for mistakes. This doesn't bode well for a publication that sees itself as Canada's journal of record. Given the ease of checking names online, there should be, in theory at least, a decline here as well.
One type of error has fallen off: calling something the "first" or the "only" when it's not. Such a bald statement is risky, especially when Globe readers are so knowledgeable and well-read that many often know the subject better than the writer does.
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This year, there were just three such miscues, including a story that said the naval icebreaker HMCS Labrador was the first to circumnavigate North America in 1954. Smart readers were quick to point out the RCMP vessel St. Roch had claimed that honour four years earlier.
Writers who display pride also risk taking a fall. One Globe freelancer ran afoul of polymath reader Alain Gingras by claiming to have read every Tintin comic at least 50 times. Mr. Gingras, a former diplomat, wrote to suggest they be read "a few times more," explaining that, contrary to what the story said, Tintin doesn't climb Mount Everest but Gosainthan, a mountain "now called Xixabangma Feng and located north of Kathmandu," whereas Everest is east of the city. What's more, he said, a volcanic crater mentioned "is in Pulau-Pulau Bompa in the Celebes Sea, not in Java," and "no one knows if Bianca Castafiore is a soprano."
Mr. Gingras dislikes errors of any sort, but "mess with Tintin," he warns, "and I will be all over you." Corrections were made.
The fact that reporters and editors realize their audience is so vigilant may well be a reason the mistake rate is down. Even so, one story attributed the phrase "let me count the ways" to Shakespeare, prompting an outcry from fans of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and then the biologists in the crowd objected when a feature on black flies was illustated with a photo of an entirely different species (which they, of course, identified correctly).
And then last week the punctuation specialists were up in arms when a news story quoted a Hillary Clinton tweet as "Love Trump's Hate," which means something very different from what she had really written – "Love Trumps Hate."
In some cases, readers literally have inside knowledge. During the federal election campaign, a reporter attending a speech by Justin Trudeau at Calgary's Petroleum Club wrote that the audience was so enthusiastic that it interrupted the man soon to be prime minister with standing ovations. Readers at the event reported that, yes, there was applause, but the crowd didn't exactly rise to its feet.
Such feedback helps The Globe correct major mistakes as quickly and transparently as possible. Most originate with the reporters, but editors sometimes add incorrect information in an attempt to be helpful. For example, the obituary of a man once held prisoner at Auschwitz was changed so that camp commandant Rudolf Hoess suddenly became Rudolf Hess – Hitler's deputy, famous for being captured while trying to sneak into Scotland.
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As for those numerical mistakes, some were small and the product of a simple misunderstanding, but there are still too many that are big – wrong by a factor of 10 or more.
A feature on aboriginal residents of Prince Edward Island said they number 13,000 when, in fact, just 1,300 remain. A story on a $100,000 charitable donation inflated the figure to $100-million while another report reduced a company's annual sales from $740-million to merely $740,000.
And finally a freelancer said that Russia spent an estimated $50-million (U.S.) on the Sochi Winter Olympics, when the real figure was closer to $50-billion.
So, while there have been relatively few corrections this year, too many errors are still being made. Having been a reporter, I know how it can happen. News is breaking and the clock is ticking, or you are so preoccupied with getting one tricky aspect right that something else doesn't get enough attention.
But a word of advice to journalists as they prepare their articles – or graphics, photo captions or headlines, for that matter: Never forget about that smart reader looking over your shoulder.