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Public Editor: The difference between a correction and a clarification

When is a clarification not a correction? If you are a regular reader online or in the paper you know that most days errors are made, and hopefully most are caught and corrected. Usually the mistake is the spelling of a name, an incorrect title or a number.

Those are clear-cut mistakes that need to be corrected right away. The Globe and Mail finds out about mistakes from staff, from the sources who perhaps had their name misspelled and from readers. We greatly appreciate this because like other newspapers in the world, it is a key value to get it right and set the record straight when it isn't.

Sometimes though, it is not a clear mistake. Sometimes, the reader is confused or even mislead by the wording used. In these cases, a clarification is warranted. Let's look at a few recent examples:

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1. A column about breast cancer said: "The alarming takeaway of (Florence) Williams's book is that our breasts are killing us [meaning women]. A journalist, Williams went digging and discovered that her own breast milk was contaminated with chemicals like perchlorate, found in rocket fuel. She writes that we are carrying large sponges on our chests, perfect for absorbing toxins, and that the incidence of breast cancer has almost doubled since the 1940s."

A reader pointed out that Canadian statistics were not available in the 1940s. The reader also argued that the column failed to mention research that changes in detection were likely a major reason for a rise in incidence rates.

The reader makes very valid points, but the column was referring to the Florence Williams book and the point she was making in her research. The need for the clarification was that it was not clear that as an American writer, Florence Williams was referring to U.S. statistics.

2. This example is not a clarification, but a story about a clarification. An article published last month said that "Palestinians should be denied the right to vote if Israel annexes the West Bank and should be required to live separately – in effect creating an apartheid-style state – according to a poll published in Haaretz" , an English-language Israeli newspaper. Readers wrote in to say that Haaretz republished its online version of the story without the offensive word "apartheid." And so, The Globe decided to set the record straight and to publish this article explaining the clarification by Haaretz.

3. Finally, here is a correction that was meant to be a clarification. A column Saturday said "The Beach Boys would be right at home on university campuses today. Two girls for every boy!" The column was correct, but not precise. It linked to the song Surf City, co-written by Beach Boy Brian Wilson but performed by Jan and Dean. While The Beach Boys also performed Surf City, it was a song recorded initially by Jan and Dean. And so it warranted a clarification rather than a correction.

If you see anything that needs correcting or clarifying, please let Globe editors know. In the comments section of any article, you can click on "report it to us" from the Editor's Note. I think it would be better to have that link on each article page rather than on the comments page.

You can always send me an e-mail at publiceditor@globeandmail.com on corrections, clarifications or any other issue.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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