Inside our pages: Editor explains elementary error

It’s the feeling you get when you’re talking about the principal behind her back and realize she’s standing right behind you. It happens when you’re meticulously detailing your dad’s car and realize the wax has dried in the sun and will never come off. Or when you step into a class to find a mid-term you didn’t about waiting.

That shot to the heart that spreads to every crevice of your body, making your heart pump double-speed and limbs go completely limp is the feeling a newspaper editor gets when he or she discovers an error in the paper. Especially if that error is in a front-page headline.

If you haven’t noticed by now, that’s what happened to The Hatchet last Thursday. Sitting in my first class of the day, I glanced over to a paper next to me and there it was, clear as day. Before my brain could register how the headline “Officials looks to re-zone HWC” could possible slip by me or our trained staff, those pins and needles took their course.

Mistakes in newspapers, from national papers all the way down to community ones, happen occasionally and will continue to happen as long as humans are incapable of perfection. No matter how many eyes look at a page, how many spell and grammar checks are used or how careful editors are, mistakes are unavoidable.

True, the mistake we ran last week does not rise to the level of others – such as an article in Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times that labeled an administrator the “director of butt licking” in a serious news piece or the Northern Illinois University’s Northern Star article two weeks ago that said the Civil War started in 1863 – but it is embarrassing nonetheless.

The reason newspaper editors get so bent out of shape about errors is that it hurts the credibility of everything else in the paper. While last Thursday’s error might have only happened because the headline was changed at the last minute, in the eye of the reader it is a stupid mistake that anyone with a second-grade education would catch. If the people running The Hatchet don’t know elementary grammar, then how can readers trust anything the paper says about much more complicated issues, such as a decade-long trend of expansion in Foggy Bottom?

The fact is, papers should not be judged solely on the brain-fart errors that slip by editors. Readers should look at the reporting (were all sources represented fairly, are all questions answered and was the topic well researched?), the writing (was the most important news first, was the article easy to read, was there a main focus?) and the presentation (was news packaged for ease of reading, was the most important news highlighted, did graphics and photos help show the whole picture?). And if such brainless errors consistently happen, then readers should take worry about the credibility of what they read.

People react differently to errors in our paper. Some people laugh with the understanding that we are all human and forget. Others never really recover, as is the case with one GW Hospital official we attempted to contact for a story last week. The woman was apparently misquoted a few years ago by a previous Hatchet staff, but the current staff is paying the price.

Both reactions are consistent with human nature, and I certainly empathize with sources that gave correct information that somehow got changed in the editing process.

The Hatchet maintains a strict policy about errors – all factual errors or mistakes that misrepresent people in a story are printed in the first issue following the discovery. On page 4 today, you will notice one such correction. It may seem inconsequential to some, but to us at The Hatchet, they lie at the heart of our journalistic standards.

I ask for the entire community’s help in maintaining a high level of accuracy in our pages. If you find something you believe needs to be corrected, please send comments personally to me at eic@gwhatchet.com or get in touch with any of our editors.

We own up to our mistakes because we want your trust. Our primary mission is to provide our readers with timely and credible news. Any mistake that no doubt infuriates you, certainly sends needles down our spines.

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