Learning from our mistakes

MARC ALLAN | mallan@butler.edu | Public Editor

The only people who see the contents of The Collegian before it is printed are the staff members. Not the president, not the dean, not the chair of the School of Journalism, not the paper’s faculty adviser and—certainly—not me.

So I don’t know whether there is a correction box in today’s paper.

But I hope there is. The story headlined “Farewell to Former President Fong” that appeared in last week’s edition contained factual errors that should be corrected.

First, Fong had been dean of faculty at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York—not Clinton College, as the story said.

The story also said during Fong’s tenure, Butler “started a partnership and lab school with Shortridge Elementary School.” Actually, partnerships with Indianapolis Public Schools created both the IPS/Butler Lab School 60 as well as Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy.

Next week, I’ll write about how those mistakes happened during the reporting process, what the editors typically do to catch and fix mistakes before they hit print, and how the process can run more smoothly.

But today, I’m going to focus generally on the topic of mistakes.

Three words about mistakes: Everyone makes them.

Journalists have a goal of zero errors of any kind because each mistake damages their credibility and the credibility of their news outlet. And journalists hate making errors because their mistakes live on in perpetuity—with their name attached.

Perfection is rare, unfortunately. An old editor of mine—a Pulitzer Prize winner—likes to say that the world is an imperfect place filled with imperfect people. Pobody’s nerfect. Clearly, that’s true: On the day I started writing this column, The New York Times, staffed by some of the world’s best reporters and editors, ran 10 corrections.

As mistakes go, the ones in the story about Bobby Fong were relatively minor. The problem is, if readers think you can’t get the basics right, then you leave them wondering what else might be wrong.

The Fong story obviously was written on a relatively tight deadline (the news broke Monday; the paper is put together Tuesday night). The faster people work in any profession, the more likely they are to make errors. And rushing is just one of many ways journalists wind up making errors.

That doesn’t excuse the errors. Even though the overall article was a fitting tribute to Butler’s 20th president, the mistakes tarnished the piece.

We should expect better from our student journalists. But we also need to remember that they are learning their craft. Mistakes will happen. The best thing they can do in situations like these is to acknowledge the errors, correct them and learn from them.

After all, pobody’s nerfect.