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Reducing Errors: It Starts With Reporters

By Andy Alexander

My Sunday column about the increasing number of typos and small errors making their way into The Post prompted a wave of e-mails from eagle-eyed citizen copy editors.
More than a few noted the incorrect date (June 5) on Monday’s front page story about President Obama’s visit to Moscow. Several cited this confusing sentence in Monday’s story on Sarah Palin: “The letter also made it clear that Palin’s growing animosity toward members of the media.”
But quite a few said I was wrong to attribute the increased errors on a reduction in copy editors. Isn’t the blame with the reporters who made the mistakes in the first place, they asked?

Kay Dawson, of Englewood, Ohio, referred to my example of a Post column that said a federal employee had “spitted" (instead of spat) on his boss.
“Why should a copy editor have to change spitted to spat? It shouldn’t have been written in the first place,” she wrote. “Most of the errors you cited in your column... are due to the ignorance of the reporter.”
Several of those who posted comments on my column made similar points.
“What I don't understand is how anyone gets hired as a reporter for a paper of national stature without being able to pass a test of spelling, grammar, and punctuation,” wrote one. “Getting names right and places right is a BASIC of Journalism 101. To blame all the issues on declining numbers of copy editors suggests that your reporters are either not competent at the basics of journalism or too lazy to proofread their own work.”
Another urged placing “the blame where it belongs (on) the people who are writing the stories in the first place. The copy editors can only police what they receive.”
These readers make a valid point. At The Post and most other newspapers struggling to contain costs, reporters will need to do a better job on the front end.
Yes, the reporting ranks have been thinned through staff reductions, and those who remain are under increasing pressure to file more quickly, and more often, to the Web. But the number of copy editors may well continue to shrink at unprofitable newspapers like The Post, making it all the more important that reporters adhere to the “garbage in, garbage out” principle.
Most newspapers do a pretty good job of tracking errors that appear in print or online. Perhaps they should place equal emphasis on tracking reporter errors that are caught by copy editors.
As newspapers increasingly shift online, one advantage of the Internet is that errors can be quickly corrected. At The Post, some online editors use the phrase “Wrong, but not for long.” It would be helpful if reporters kept in mind the exhortation of legendary publisher Joseph Pulitzer: “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!”

By Andy Alexander  | July 7, 2009; 4:52 PM ET
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Next: Veteran Editors Offer Advice to The Post


Typos and grammar errors. That's really the crux of The Post's biggest credibility problem. Way to keep your eye on the ball.

Posted by: dijamo | July 7, 2009 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Ethical breaches, communications problems, branding confusion, disguised editorial bias, copy-editing and spelling problems, now technical problems that hide comments from your last column...the WP's credibility problems run wider and deeper than you will be able to cover in a month's worth of columns. I see you desperately trying to address the issues, but i fear your piecemeal approach just isn't going to help. Your bosses don't want to hear the reader feedback, and they don't want to give you the information to respond effectively to us. Your readers see the position you are in and you just aren't going to be able to carry the weight your position should. It isn't about your competence, Mr. are just working in a system to sick to respond to the efforts you can invest. I'm sorry, for all of us. I used to enjoy the Post and feeling as if i was well informed after i read it.

Posted by: las100 | July 7, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

The Huffington Post has hired Dan Froomkin to be its Washington Bureau Chief and regular columnist/blogger. Froomkin will oversee a staff of four five reporters and an Assistant Editor, guide The Huffington Post's Washington reporting, and write at least two posts per week to be featured on its main page and Politics page. I learned last night of the hiring and spoke to both Arianna Huffington and Froomkin this morning.

bye bye, ombudsman andy

your lack of ability and morals was part of the reason the wapo died


Posted by: laughing4unotatu1 | July 8, 2009 5:01 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, lord knows I'm glad we are doing regular updates on the critical issue of typos slipping into articles.

Meanwhile we have nothing new on the pay to play issue.

Status Update!

"Rogue Marketing Guy" - Still gainfully employed!

Froomkin - Now at HuffPuff, WaPo doesn't report it.

Weymouth or Editor condescending to answer reader questions on easily available WaPo owned discussion forums? Not gonna happen!

Feh. Next up, Ombudsman answers hard hitting questions on what kind of potted plants are favored in the Post offices.

Posted by: janowicki | July 8, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I agree to a point, but the truth is, you usually need more than one pair of eyes. I have been a writer for years and I'm great at spelling and grammar in my own language, but still, even after three proof readings (my own included), there tend to be sat least a few inexplicable errors in the published product.

So of course at a minimum the reporters must have en excellent command of written English, but copy editors will always be needed.

Posted by: asoders22 | July 8, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

And didn't I make two errors in that short comment?

"Sat least"? "En excellent command..."?

Posted by: asoders22 | July 8, 2009 11:05 AM | Report abuse

In Ms. Graham's apology over the weekend, she mentioned something that has not received the proper attention.

She said, "So what happened? Like other media companies, The Post hosts conferences and live events that bring together journalists, government officials and other leaders for discussions of important topics. These events make news and inform their audiences. We had planned to extend this business to include smaller gatherings, a practice that has become common at other media companies."

This is a stunning assertion, that these shennanigans are common practice at other media companies. By way of atonement, maybe the Post could publish some investigative work on which other companies these are, whose money they have taken, and to what extent this cash has shaded their coverage of the issues.

As Jason Robards intoned in the cinema classic, "Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country."

This is a huge scandal. The comparisons to Payola are apt.

Posted by: FormerSubscriber | July 8, 2009 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Fire Krauthammer, Gerson, Hiatt and the other right-wing shills (Will is plenty) and hire 10 copy editors and/or literate, numerate reporters. There, that wasn't so hard.

Posted by: bobskis | July 8, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I guess the headline on page one today with the word "torture" in it is a typo as well? After all, the WaPo won't use the word, preferring "enhanced interrogation techniques." Oh, I forgot, it's ok because it's talking about Mexicans.

Posted by: RollaMO | July 9, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Well, I see the Post is learning. They figured out that actually acknowledging this issue pay to play issue feeds the story, but stonewalling and saying nothing drops it down the memory hole.

Prediction - Farhi prints nothing for a couple of weeks. The Ombudsman continues to post up on important issues of the day, like whether staffers prefer Rhododendrons or Daiseys in their potted office plants. Then Farhi slips in on Style, page 4 under the movies ads an article explaining how great the internal effort was, and how everything is solved. Case closed, nothing to see here.

Then the marketing guy sets up basically the same thing, using the phone this time rather than marketing flyers.

Posted by: janowicki | July 9, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Yes, more errors is the result of fewer copy editors. Almost nobody can edit their own work unless it is a blog that can be edited after people scream bloody murder.

It's also the result of lower editorial standards. Better editors might help. More reporters assigned to fact checking would help more. The grammar errors don't bother me. It's the errors of fact, the slavish reporting of what is fed to you, and the failure to dig into stories that is increasingly disappointing people who love this paper (like me)


Posted by: chris_holte | July 9, 2009 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Great example on the Opinion web page:

"An institution legendary for its white alpha males won't phase the Supreme Court nominee, writes her Princeton adviser."

Really? It won't bring her along gradually? The word intended here is "faze".

Posted by: cjohnson1 | July 10, 2009 12:28 AM | Report abuse

Holy smokes, you all are complaining about Alexander?! He's the best Ombudsman the Post has ever had. He really takes it to them, unlike his predecessor, who sounded more like a PR person.

Posted by: Section506 | July 10, 2009 7:39 AM | Report abuse

Freedom is worthless without the freedom to make mistakes. You don't get a bonus for them though.

Posted by: Dermitt | July 10, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I agree that the bad grammar and typos should be caught at the source. However, think back to your college days, when you learned the importance of typing your report/thesis and then letting it sit for a few days, so you could review it with fresh eyes.

It is very difficult to catch errors when your mind has a fresh memory of what you intended to type, and a reporter does not have the luxury of waiting several days. There are deadlines to meet, and thus the real need for copy editors to provide a fresh look.

Posted by: AZrls | July 11, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

No, the copy editors should do a better job, in correcting typos, grammar, ill-advised abbreviations, and bring a certain WaPo style for consistency. One should not blame a reporter calling in, or sending an e-mail and expect complete adherence to all these details.

Too often I find headlines that are very obscure. Frequent among is these is the use of the verb "weigh-in", use of nouns as verbs and vice-a-versa, and not recognizing the duplicity with which some of the words in the language can be undrstood (pun intended).

If editing copy is not the job of the copy editor, then what is it?

Posted by: pKrishna43 | July 12, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Copy quality and accuracy depend both on the quality and experience of the reporters and the presence of a sensible number of copy editors. The Post's chosen combination of young, inexperienced (read "much less expensive") overworked new reporters to replace more experienced veterans, and the presence of fewer copy editors, results in rushed, badly edited copy. I can forgive an occasional typo, but using totally incorrect words (see "phase" and "faze") is inexcusable. It's true - you get what you pay for...

Posted by: babs13 | July 14, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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