Sheer incompetence

I hate making mistakes. It goes to the very heart of what we do as journalists. If people stop believing what they read in the newspaper, they’ll very quickly stop reading it.

And, as a reporter, if I make errors in my copy I’ll soon lose the trust of people I rely on to tell me things. It doesn’t take  a lot for people to get the confirmation of their suspicion that journalists don’t tell the truth. It’s particularly bad, I think, for reporters like me who specialise in a certain subject, like education, because we speak to the same people over and over again.

So yesterday I was horrified when I read my story on page seven of the Leicester Mercury about the city’s Whatever It Takes reading campaign because I knew the split second I saw the words that I’d got it wrong.

I’d written that only one in four Leicester schoolchildren has a reading age as high as their real age.

What I’d meant, and in my mind I actually thought I was writing, was the exact opposite: One in four children does not have a reading age as high as their real age.

How obvious it was yesterday as soon as I opened the paper and saw it there in black and white!! And yet I’d spent so long on Friday looking at the statistic when I was writing the article – then writing and re-writing the sentence so it made grammatical sense (Is it one in four has or one in four have?) – before reading the article two or three times before I sent it to the news editor. Yet I still didn’t spot this glaring inaccuracy.

I’m sorry. It was ridiculous.

I don’t know why but I’ve noticed that, as a journalist, these sorts of mistakes come all at once. You can go months when you don’t get anything wrong, and thankfully it doesn’t happen too often, and then, suddenly, nothing seems to go right.

It’s the same this time. In the GCSE league tables a couple of weeks ago I got some figures wrong. The head teacher of one school, Soar Valley College, was, quite rightly annoyed. After  14 hours of sifting through reams and reams of percentages sent to us by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (mostly completely irrelevant to us), I miscalculated one part of his data.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that error ruined my week.

Unlike a radio broadcast or a story online, you can’t go back and rectify the situation and the feeling of opening the page of that day’s freshly printed newspaper and seeing a glaring mistake is uniquely chilling.

Mistakes happen in journalism, not because reporters are slapdash or uncaring but because newspapers need stories to be written to a deadline and that time pressure can do funny things.

If there’s any good that can come out of making stupid mistakes such as these that I’ve been responsible for recently is that it makes me much more careful when I write future stories.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it brings needed humility. A certain proportion of what we write includes news about people messing things up. We’re very quick to criticise when things go wrong. It doesn’t do any harm to be reminded that to err is human.

About Ian

A journalist working in Brussels
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3 Responses to Sheer incompetence

  1. AJ Cann says:

    Err, what are editors for?

  2. Crossland says:

    The fact that you are so clearly contrite about the errors reflects very well on you, and on print journalism as a whole. Presumably there will be printed corrections in the newspaper (and that the web stories will be amended) – which shows how seriously errors are taken by newspapers.

    I doubt whether many internet news services, for example, would take this so seriously.
    This is one reason why I think (as an impartial but interested observer) professional journalism has a strong future despite the proliferation of other news sources, and why people will continue to pay for rigorous, accountable news reporting.

  3. Sue says:

    why no mention of dyslexia? Was that a deliberate mistake? Don’t tell me there aren’t any dyslexia friendly schools in the city? Surely all the SCITT schools must be dyslexia friendly by this time? Let me see, Dyslexia friendly schools launched nationwide 1999/2000. Dyslexia friendly schools conference Leicester university spring 2000. Meeting Individual Needs specific learning difficulties ready for publication 2002 published and distributed to every school in the city 2004. City commits to gain dyslexia friendly quality mark 2009. Still no dyslexia friendly schools? Why not and why hide facts from parents.

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