Operation Correct That Error: An example

With the deadline coming up next week (7 a.m. Friday Aug. 14) for the final version of your Correct That Error post, here’s an example of the sort of report I’m looking for. This is drawn from the case we reviewed in class last week and is summarized in slides 5-10 in the deck posted from our July 27 class.

As discussed in class, I recognize that not everyone will be successful in getting a correction made. The point of this exercise is to increase your critical reading habits and to help you explore the process of pointing out a mistake and seeking a correction. I also want you to experience the corrections process from the perspective of a reader/viewer/listener.

Although getting the fix made is an objective of the assignment, I’ll also assess the quality of your discussion of whatever your experience has been in finding an error, reporting it to the people responsible and seeking an appropriate correction. I intend the brief post below more as an example of how you might proceed than a blueprint for particulars.

All about the numbers (and their meaning)

Since I’d been wondering how Joe Biden might figure in the 2016 presidential race (more in terms of his support than his candidacy), I was drawn to a July 27 Boston Globe story whose headline promised no more than it delivered: “Biden’s plans for 2016 still a mystery.”

It was only when I got a half dozen graphs into the story that I realized I might have a good case study for the “Operation Correct that Error” assignment I’d given in the journalism ethics class I’m teaching at Northeastern University this summer.

In her story from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Globe reporter Annie Linskey wrote: “On Tuesday a national Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 14 percent supporting Biden –putting him exactly tied with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.”

I had no idea what the numbers might be, but I know enough about basic polling statistics to realize that the phrase “exactly tied” is meaningless in surveys carrying a margin of error of three to five percent. It was only when I looked up the actual poll results that I discovered another error: The poll found support for Sanders at 14 percent but support for Biden at 12 percent.

My larger point, as I mentioned in an email that morning to Linskey, was to suggest the word “roughly” as a substitute for “exactly” in describing the candidates’ relative standings in the poll. Recognizing that I might be missing something, though, I tried not to get too high and mighty in my email. I told her I’d welcome her response.

Linskey’s reply was prompt, courteous and direct: “Thank you for reading. You are correct. We should and will correct.”

Within a few hours, the Globe had corrected the article and attached a correction: “An earlier version of this story misstated Joe Biden’s ranking in a recent poll. The story has been corrected to note that Biden was in a statistical tie with Bernie Sanders in the poll.”

I still like my wording better. Calling them “statistically tied” overstates the meaning of the numbers in a way that “roughly tied” does not. But that’s a quibble. Good for Linskey and her editors for their commitment to setting the record straight.

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