Mistakes happen. As a journalist for more than 15 years, I made my share of typos. Typos and other mistakes in journalism are important for several reasons:
What may seem to some like a small mistake, such as the misspelling of a person's name, can have huge, terrible consequences. The theory goes that every person who reads the person's name and knows it is misspelled will proceed to question everything else they read.
While television news does a terrible job of admitting mistakes — reason #2,888 that I prefer newspapers to television news programs — newspapers usually do a good job of acknowledging an error occurred and apologizing for it. Good newspapers run corrections in the same place each day, often page one for mistakes that occurred on the front page and page two for most other mistakes.
The catching of mistakes by readers, when added to mistakes admitted by reporters and staff, leads to credibility problems.
Since nobody is perfect, some mistakes are to be expected.
One of the difficult parts about being a journalist is that your mistakes are so public. When an accountant, for example, makes a mistake but it is later caught, the public is none the wiser. But if a reporter interviews a man named John Smith and assumes Smith is spelled the usual way then realizes it's actually spelled Smyth, the reporter is going to look like an idiot. Many reporters insist on getting business cards to confirm spelling and titles.
Complicating matters, readers assume the reporter is responsible for the wording — and spelling — of the headlines and photo captions when that is often not the case.
Let me give some personal examples:
One of the more common mistakes reporters make is leaving out the L in the word "public". Spell-check agrees that the mistake is a word and presto: We now have ourselves a pubic hearing. One of my more embarrassing mistakes was referring to a person as the "pubic works manager." Tough job, I am sure. Fortunately, he took it in stride.
Some mistakes are pure stupidity. I wrote obituaries at the first newspapers I worked for. One day I came to a Hispanic name I did not recognize. As the gender of the deceased was not stated I did something stupid, I guessed. Long story short, I guessed wrong and the family called howling the next day and I felt like crap. After that I always checked even if it meant interrupting families still grieving
As do most reporters, I type fast. I got that speed through a unique strategy. I was a slow typist during college until I took a typing class. It quickly became clear that the typing teacher wanted fast typing rather than accurate typing. At the time I was listening to a lot of punk music, especially Bad Religion, Fugazi, Minor Threat, Seven Seconds, etc. So I put on my headphones and began typing while listening to punk music. As the keystrokes struggled to keep up with the fast beat, my typing speed increased. That first week my typing speed increased from about 35 words per minute to about 75 words per minute. The next week my speed improved to about 100 words per minute.
Other students were not oblivious to this change. They also began listening to music and typing faster. This continued for about one month until we reached a point where all of the students were listening to music while working. While we thought this was bloody brilliant, our teacher was increasingly frustrated as he realized he had lost control of his class.
He asked us to stop listening to the music while we typed. We negotiated an agreement - we could use the music for the tests, so our results would still be good, but the rest of the time we would listen to the teacher.
Twist of Fate
In a nice twist, now that I have left the journalism profession for an education career I am subbing in various classes as I work toward a degree to teach English in middle school. That means dealing with students who make typos that are hilarious. I have gotten good at suppressing a laugh when a student writes something unintentionally funny.
I had to laugh last week when subbing in an English class and students were asking to listen to music while they read and write. "You can't do that," I told them. But, the students said, we can work faster with music. I could almost hear myself saying the same words to my typing teacher.
But I told them no. Do as I say, not as I do.