The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

Sam Pollak

January 14, 2012

To err is human; to make good on corrections, divine

"As long as the world is turning and spinning," said funnyman Mel Brooks, "we're gonna be dizzy and we're gonna make mistakes."

Fair enough. Still, some mistakes are a bit worse than others.

Take, for instance, this doozy in 1864 by Union Army Major-General John Sedgwick during the Civil War's Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia.

Sedgwick, a well-respected general, was advised by his aides not to expose himself to fire from Confederate snipers.

"As the bullets whistled by, some of the men dodged," read the official version of the event by General Martin T. McMahon, who was at the scene. "The general said laughingly, "What! what! men, dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

Sedgwick was then struck in the head by a bullet from a Confederate sharpshooter ... and died.

Big mistake.

Other mistakes are more financial than fatal.

In 1962, manager Brian Epstein tried to interest Decca records in a quartet he was promoting. They performed 15 songs in an audition. Some time later, Epstein got a letter from Decca.

"Not to mince words, Mr. Epstein, but we don't like your boys' sound. Groups are out; four-piece groups with guitars particularly are finished. … The Beatles have no future in show business."

Real big mistake.

Mistakes were on my mind because it has become an annual ritual for this column to report on the corrections my newspaper has run in the past year.

We go to great pains to own up to it when we goof up, but unless they had a tangible effect on the accuracy of a story, headline or photo caption, our corrections don't include the many times we've misspelled something or used fractured syntax or violated the rules of singular-plural agreement, along with myriad other grammatical sins.

That said, in 2011, The Daily Star ran 116 corrections.

That number bothers me, but not for the reason one might think.

It's too low.

In 2010, we ran 178 corrections. In 2009: 187; in 2008: 174; and in 2007: 176. That's an average of 178.75 over those four years. Why, then, was last year's number so small in comparison?

We have smart, veteran reporters and photographers. You can say the same about our sports department. Our copy desk has had a year of transition and is getting better every day. But most of our people were here in previous years.

So why such a small number in 2011?

It's a mystery.

Are we being diligent enough in recognizing when we mess up? Are sources in stories contacting us with the same frequency to let us know about our boo-boos?

We really do want to know about _ and acknowledge _ our mistakes. While most of the corrections we run involve fairly pedestrian things such as getting a date or an address wrong, the ones that really gall me involve the state lottery results.

Get the numbers wrong in the Mega Millions drawing, and you're really looking for trouble. Imagine the warm, fuzzy feeling a reader will have for the newspaper if he thinks he just hit the jackpot, then finds out that the paper had it wrong. Even worse, what about the reader who throws away a winning ticket because ... well ... you get the idea.

We're trying very, very hard to get those right in 2012. As for the 2011 corrections, I still don't know why there were so few. Editors worry about things like that. Truth be known, we worry a lot ... about everything.

I'm fortunate in that the people who work at The Daily Star are as talented and dedicated a bunch as you would find anywhere. I make more mistakes than all of them combined.

But there isn't an editor in the country who doesn't know what the pattern of his or her bedroom ceiling looks like. That's because we spend a lot of time staring at it, wide-eyed, late into the night, wondering what could go awry with the next day's paper.

It's not just editors. Our reporters, photographers and copy editors are nuts, too. They remember things they did wrong long after I've forgotten them. Almost all of them have told me at one time or another that they have actually dreamed they had made some egregious error.

Either I'm a horrible martinet who makes life miserable for everyone (which _ gosh _ I truly hope isn't the case), or I've got a fantastic group of wonderful people who really care about getting things right. Most of the time, of course, they succeed.

No matter how much the world turns and spins in 2012, that's something we won't try to correct.

Sam Pollak is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/sampollak.

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