Sited — Regret the Error

18 April 2011

Written by: Lawrie Zion

If you’re a journalist, there’s one fact that you can’t escape. You’re going to make mistakes. So what do are you going to do about them?

It’s this question that has preoccupied Canadian journalist Craig Silverman since 2004 when he decided to launch his blog Regret The Error: Mistakes Happen after realising that although it’s a journalist’s job to be accurate, there wasn’t really anyone talking about this issue on a daily basis.

Seven year later the site has also spawned an award-winning book, and the Montreal-based Silverman also writes regularly about accuracy and errors for several newspapers, as well as the Columbia Journalism Review and PBS  MediaShift, where he is also that publication’s managing editor. Meanwhile Regret the Error has stuck to its mission of reporting on ‘media corrections, retractions, apologies, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the press’.

The site regularly features details of corrections made by media outlets from around the world (including a recent apology from Melbourne newspaper The Age about an error in a report about Private Jake Kovco), and has also campaigned for newspapers to admit error when apologies for published mistakes haven’t been forthcoming.

But Regret the Error goes far beyond simply chronicling errors and their corrections. As someone who recently described himself to this author as an optimist about the potential of online media, Silverman is also all too aware of the challenges that face journalists in our accelerating media environment, as he demonstrates in the recent post ‘Speed versus accuracy in journalism: towards a new debate’.

Some of the mistakes and corrections posted by the site are hilarious, and each year Silverman publishes a widely-read year in review column. The 2010 column includes this correction from Britain’s The Sun newspaper: ‘In an article on February 3, we implied two thirds of Haitians drank goats’ blood while practising voodoo. We are happy to make clear this is not the case.’

What also makes Regret the Error such a valuable site for journalists are the array of  resources it offers: in the background material section, Silverman provides details of the sources he used for writing his well-researched book, the home page includes some useful links to other accuracy sites, and the accuracy checklist he has developed to provide journalists with a set of procedures to follow before hitting the publish button.

Silverman says that while a checklist might sound like a simplistic tool for dealing with the challenges of minimising mistakes amid a maelstrom of modern media practices, he points out that they’re also used by pilots and workers at nuclear facilities. ‘It’s the greatest error prevention tool known to human kind …used in so many professions but not journalism.’

The need to develop strategies to deal with the problem of errors is especially acute at a time where fact checkers, proof readers, and even sub-editors are disappearing or have already gone the way of the typewriter and telex machine. Meanwhile, journalists have never been under as much scrutiny for their work that they are expected to produce so much more of.

For this reason I’m road testing Silverman’s accuracy checklist before filing this column. And, unless his checklist and my subbing skills unite to produce perfection, expect to see details of any errors in what you’ve just read posted on upstart in the very near future.

Lawrie Zion is co-founder and editor-in-chief of upstart. You can follow Regret the Error on Facebook and Craig Silverman on Twitter. Previous sited columns can be found here.

Hear Lawrie Zion’s full interview with Craig Silverman for ABC’s Future Tense here.