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Chicago Tribune uses forms, proofing company to improve accuracy

November 20, 2009

Margaret Holt, standards editor, Chicago Tribune; chair, MPI

The Chicago Tribune is so driven at eradicating errors made in the paper that it employs an outside proofing company to find typos, misspellings and other mistakes.

It’s part of the Tribune’s intensive accuracy program.

“We want to find the mistakes, correct them and determine how not to make the same mistake again,” says Margaret Holt, Tribune standards editor.

Holt led a session on “Accuracy & Credibility: Basics Matter Now More Than Ever” Thursday, Nov. 12, at the Illinois Press Association headquarters in Springfield, Ill. Her session was part of a one-day workshop on the “Essentials of Credibility & Media Law” co-sponsored by the Mid-America Press Institute and the Illinois Press Foundation.

The Tribune began its accuracy program in 1991, said Holt, who is also chairman of MPI. In 1996, it added an error policy. When an error is spotted in the paper, a form has to be filled out and the person making the error has to determine how it was made and a correction has to be published as soon as possible.

The error form does not go into a person’s personnel folder, she said. The form is used as a way to have a “clinical conversation” about how the error was made and how to avoid making the error in the future.

“It’s not punitive. It’s not a gotcha moment,” Holt said. “One of the key factors for us was we were not out to just stop … errors. We were out to improve the quality of work.”

Part of Holt’s job is to code and quantify every single error. She said editors have identified six types of errors. The “big three” causes of errors come from news gathering, editing and display production, she said. The other causes for errors are mistakes in syndicate or outside service copy, unavoidable errors and simple errors.

Simple errors are just errors made by staffers being human, she said. Unavoidable errors are errors made by sources in which reporters and editors have no way of knowing the information could be erroneous.

If a syndicate or wire service makes an error, the syndicate or service is notified of the error and asked to avoid these errors in the future, Holt said.

“When we first started our error rate was high – 4.7 errors a page,” she said. “Now anything around 1 is a good mark.”

When trends are spotted in error forms, staff meetings are held to discuss the trend, she said.

“Once I took a year’s worth of errors in obituaries and looked for patterns,” Holt said “Two-thirds to three fourths of the errors centered around three things: name of the deceased, time of services and survivors.

“As soon as you raise awareness of these things, the errors go away,” she said.

Holt said that if 35 percent of errors are made by the inside of the organization, that’s a good number.

“Over time half of all our errors are at the front end of the news process. It still starts with the reporter getting things right.”

Holt said Trib staffers like working for an organization that cares about being right and doing things better.

“Everyone is more responsible for their own work than ever before and everyone has to have everyone’s back.”

Holt said it is important for a newspaper to correct its mistakes in the same place of the newspaper everyday so that readers will know where to routinely go to find them. She said the paper also should make sure the corrections are posted with the original stories in the paper’s archives and online.

Holt believes the accuracy program has raised the Trib’s credibilitiy with its readers.

She also believes that having a culture to identify errors will help stop reporters from making up information for stories, such as that which occurred with Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and it will help newspapers react if such incidences do occur.

During the session, editors in the audience discussed steps their newspapers take to improve accuracy. They included:

—     Two editors read stories before they go to the copy desk, one editor said. Then we put page proofs up in the newsroom for everyone to go over before the paper goes to press.

—     One paper sends out accuracy forms with every story printed in the paper. The editors say 90 percent of the articles are error free, but the forms catch some errors and they impress their readers that newspaper cares.

—     Several editors said they correct every story online. Bryan Murley, Eastern Illinois University, advised: “Don’t scrub your Web site. Web site geeks are watching for it. They’ll have a screen shot or something on it” and post it on the Web.

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