Columnists > Voices

Mistakes writers make

And how we try to treat them here at WORLD

Issue: "Tyranny of the minority," June 7, 2003

THERE ARE AT LEAST THREE WAYS TO GET SOMETHING wrong into print. The first is to fake it. Jayson Blair, formerly of The New York Times, has given us all plenty of exposure to that approach over the last two or three weeks. His corruption of his assignment will affect journalism for years to come.

The second approach is through sheer carelessness. People aren't pleased when you misspell their names. But they get angry when you sloppily malign their character. Courts call this a "reckless disregard" for the truth.

The third way that untrue things get into print is that good and diligent craftsmen still fall short of perfection. A reporter may meticulously interview five witnesses to an accident, and then faithfully write his story-never knowing that the sixth witness would have cast a whole different light on the truth. Or a weary editor, by not noticing the placement of a comma, can subtly, if unintentionally, allow the meaning of a whole story to be altered.

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To my knowledge, WORLD has never allowed a fabricated story in its pages. It's not that such stories never come across our desks. Especially with the advent of the Internet, urban legends of every kind stalk newsrooms just as they do corporate break rooms, teachers' lounges, and church hallways. They are fun to tell-except that almost none of them are true. Among the most notorious, sent to me by no fewer than a dozen WORLD subscribers (and always with the question, "How could you have missed publishing this in WORLD?"), is a purported quotation from former Vice President Al Gore's book Earth in Balance [sic]: "Refusing to accept the earth as our sacred mother, these Christians have become a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity. They are the blight on the environment and to believe in Bible prophecy is unforgivable." The quote is made to look a bit more authentic by saying it comes from p. 342.

But it's all a lie. Mr. Gore may have said other silly things, but he never said this. It's nowhere to be found on p. 342 (or on any other page) of his book, which is titled Earth in the Balance rather than Earth in Balance. This one was not hard to check out. Others take a little more work.

I wish I could tell you that WORLD has never carried a factual error stemming from sheer carelessness. But such errors have appeared in this very column-and more recently than I like to admit. Just yesterday I had to admit to a reader that a few weeks ago I had referred to England's King George VI when I meant King George IV. A quick check when I wrote the column would have eliminated that error, but it was a check I hadn't been diligent to make.

Such casual misstatements of fact don't destroy credibility the way deliberately false accounts do. But neither are they a great way for a publication to build trust with its readers. A "zero-defects" policy takes money and discipline, but such money and discipline always bear fruit. When everyone knows that details matter, sloppy habits tend to fall by the wayside. Through the years, we've watched that happen at WORLD.

Yet, even with the toughest safeguards in place, our fallen nature guarantees that glitches will plague anyone who dares to go into print. Two recent examples from our own pages: A pair of quotation marks in our May 17 issue, accurately but ambiguously used, misled at least one reader to attribute the quotation to the wrong person. A week earlier, in our story about Calvin College, we accurately said that Shirley Hoogstra, the college's vice president for student life, had "explained" a particular issue-but in failing to make clear where the explanation took place, we may wrongly have implied that she had explained the issue to our reporter. Neither of these involved a misstatement of fact or even, strictly speaking, an error. But since both led readers to a wrong conclusion, they were reminders that even a disciplined effort can fall short.

When a friend took me to task some months ago for a two-page article in WORLD that had highlighted some shortcomings of another Christian organization, I reminded him that over the previous year, we had devoted nearly 50 pages to the shortcomings of another outfit: WORLD magazine. In our correction column and in our "Mailbag" section we'll always try to own up to our mistakes.

By God's grace, we'll never have to apologize for letting a deliberately false report sneak by. We pledge to prune carelessness from our habits. And we promise to be honest with you when, in spite of our best efforts, a few determined mistakes still slip through.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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