3 takeaways from the Washington Post’s 579-word correction on a story about family farms

We have covered the issue of corrections here a few times, including the massive ones issued for the obituaries of politicians John McCain and Richard Lugar. At 135 words and 144 words, respectively, these pale in comparison to the correction the Washington Post recently issued on Korsha Wilson’s piece on black families trying to hold onto their ancestors’ farm land.

This correction covers 15 bullet points and 579 painful words.

To put that in perspective, consider this:

  • If you added the McCain and Lugar corrections together and DOUBLED them, the word count would still fall short of 579 words.
  • According to media coverage on the incident, the correction went on so long, it needed to be jumped in the print edition.
  • When I worked at a daily newspaper, we were taught that it was about 30 words to a column inch, which would make this correction 19.2 column inches. That is nearly twice the length of most stories I was allowed to write for meetings, breaking news stories and featurized obituaries at the time.
  • The correction is about one-fifth the size of the original story.

Longer narrative stories that deal in complex issues, especially historic ones, run a lot of risks when it comes to accuracy. People’s recollections sometimes run counter to other people’s memories. Nuance can be lost in the writing, thus leading to mistakes due to slips in verbiage. Even more, longer pieces that weave in multiple sources can feel like juggling Jell-O, leading the writer to attribute a statement to a wrong source or to make a cut-and-paste mistake.

Some of these pitfalls are at the core of Wilson’s piece, but they don’t account for the majority of the problems. Consider these corrections:

  • The first name of Emanuel Freeman Sr. was misspelled.
  • The number of children Freeman had with his second wife, Rebecca, was eight, not 10.
  • The partition sale of the Freeman estate was in 2016, not 2018, and it included 360 acres of the original 1,000, not 30 acres of the original 99.
  • Tashi Terry said, “Welcome to Belle Terry Lane,” not “Welcome to Belle Terry Farm.” The property is named Terry Farm.
  • Aubrey Terry did not buy 170 acres with his siblings in 1963; his parents bought the 150-acre property in 1961.
  • The eldest Terry brother died in 2011, not 2015.

  • Ownership of Freeman’s property was not transferred to heirs when Rebecca died. In fact, he used a trust before he died to divide his property among his heirs.

In other words, about half of the 15 bullet points involved simple fact-checking issues I would expect a student in a basic reporting class to be able to manage. Tom Jones at Poynter also noted the sloppy journalism, but said he thought the Post should get kudos for going to such great lengths to correct the record.

I would agree to a point, in that fixing mistakes is always a good idea. That said, not making so many mistakes would have been a better way to go with this. Wilson wasn’t a veteran staff member who got a pass on stringent editing because she was a known commodity. I would imagine that editors would drill down more deeply in a freelance piece to make sure it met the standards of the publication.

Also, Executive Editor Marty Barron’s pretty bland and opaque statement on the issue didn’t shed a lot of light on the issue:

“We are embarrassed by the widespread errors in this freelance article. We have published a detailed correction of each error and updated the story based on re-reporting by Post staff.”

(And for a last piece of perspective, everything you read right to this point totals 579 words, the exact same length as the correction.)

The goal with this blog isn’t to beat up on people, but rather to help you learn from the mistakes of others. With that in mind, consider these thoughts:

  • Fred Vultee’s Theory on Drowning: Professor Fred Vultee of Wayne State University is an editing expert and a veteran journalist of the days in which smoking in the newsroom was common. We worked together at the Columbia Missourian back in the early 2000s, where he was fond of telling me (and anyone smart enough to listen) that, “You can drown just as easily in two inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean.” His point was to treat small bits of copy (briefs, captions etc.) with the same care as the magnum opus stories that went on for scads of inches and wove together complex story lines.
    I liked to expand this to include the idea that it’s rarely the complex and nuanced issues of a painstakingly detailed story that lead to corrections, but rather the simple, stupid stuff you should have check on in the first place. This story exemplifies that with the mistakes on name spellings, dates and numbers.

 

  • Assume everything you wrote is wrong. Go prove yourself to be right: We talked about this one before, but it bears repeating. Fact checking is a vital aspect of what you do as a reporter. Sure, we could leave that to the editors, but with newsroom cuts and overworked staff, editors aren’t the safety net they used to be. (Case in point, this piece apparently went through the Post’s rigorous editing process and still ended up with more than a dozen points that needed correcting after the fact.)
    Write based on your notes, your recall and your research, but then edit the hell out of your work with the eye of a skeptic. Assume every fact is wrong until you can prove it right. (A former student of mine once interned at a place that required reporters to circle every verifiable fact and print out a piece of solid source copy to demonstrate its veracity.) If you read better on screen, edit it there. If you catch more stuff on a printed page, kill a tree or two if necessary. Whatever helps you examine your work clearly and with an eye toward detail, do it. You want to be able to point out to an editor exactly how you know you are right.

 

  • Get back up and try again: If you enter this business thinking you’ll never screw up, you have some wishful thinking happening in your head. A year or so back, I asked people in the hivemind about things they fouled up as journalists. These venerable writers, reporters, photographers and even professors noted a wide array of, “Oh crap…” moments that had each of us thinking, “There but by the grace of God go I…”

    People who were following the Post’s correction with the glee of an arsonist watching a four-alarm fire got their shots in on the writer for her work, with one noting:“At this rate, it is a wonder the author even got her name right. Speaking of which, the author of this hot mess is one Korsha Wilson… By the looks of what happened to Wilson’s Washington Post article, she should probably stick to writing about food.”

    Not to be rude here, but what a dick. Nothing says, “I’m a professional journalist” like kicking people when they’re down. And I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the writer of that insightful commentary likely has a correction or two in his writing history.

    We’re all going to screw something up at some point. I’m sure Korsha Wilson wanted to crawl into a hole and die when this story went south and her mistakes went viral. When I screwed up on a local level before things like this could spread beyond a print circulation area, that’s exactly how I felt each and every time I made a mistake. I feared making another mistake to the point that I was almost assured of making one, a syndrome that gave birth to my “handful of Jell-O” axiom.

    My hope for her is the same hope I have for any of you who screw up (read: everyone in journalism), which is that once you fix the mistake and you take your flogging, you persevere. Get up, dust yourself off and go back to work. The best way for people to forget you had a horrible moment is to have a few great ones.

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