Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
It is a feeling that every copy editor knows. You bolt upright out of a deep sleep at 3 a.m., eyes wide open, and you say to yourself, Did I misspell “Kyrgyzstan” last night? And nine times out of 10, you can go back to sleep comfortably knowing … that you did.
Copy editors — those of us who polish articles and write headlines and photo captions — have an almost photographic memory when it comes to the words that pass before our eyes. Unfortunately, the cameras we use are those old-fashioned tripods that use flaming magnesium for a flash and take hours, or even days, for the pictures to develop. But eventually it all comes back in a rush of clarity. You might be pushing your toddler through the park on a glorious sunny day off when suddenly you ask yourself: Did I say Dallas was the capital of Texas last week? Yes. Yes, you did. You idiot.
My latest foray into the Corrections list came last month when I wrote a photo caption identifying Senator Tom Udall of Utah. And by Utah, obviously, I meant New Mexico. Because that’s the state he represents. (Until this week.)
My job, simply speaking, is to get things right. So there is no worse feeling than the realization that you have entered a correctable error into print and that a correction will appear a day or two later to proclaim, “Because of an editing error …” There is no escaping the page of the newspaper that you have marred; it reappears everywhere you look: blowing down the sidewalk, on a subway car, wrapped around the sea bass you’ve just bought at the market. There is no doubt that five years from now, I’ll buy something on eBay and it will come in a box padded with a scrap of The New York Times that says “Tom Udall of Utah.”
So how does this happen? In many wonderful and colorful ways. In this case, I’m pretty sure I typed “Udall” and then typed “Utah” because of the alliterative assonance. The brain plays funny tricks like that. You can be absent-minded: I have typed the first names of friends who have the same last name of the person I was actually writing about. Or you can simply be lazy: I misspelled both “Micheal Jordan” and “Wayne Gretsky” … in the same headline.
The Times has strict policies on corrections: If it’s wrong, even if just for a few minutes online or in one edition of the print newspaper, it is supposed to get a correction. Reporters and editors are expected to self-report their mistakes, which can make you feel a little like Bart Simpson writing on the blackboard, “I will never misquote Shakespeare again.” But it is this dedication to accuracy that earns the trust of our readers.
The Corrections listings are one of the first things I read every day, and that is a common practice among many copy editors. It’s not necessarily an act of schadenfreude (but maybe a little) as much as it’s a daily reminder of the importance of diligence: Double-check your math. Look up even the most famous of quotations.
Reading through New York Times corrections is like taking a guided tour of journalism’s pitfalls. It’s where you discover the Ginsberg-Ginsburg Vortex, a black hole that has devoured many a journalist who has confused the names of the poet and the justice. And it’s a parallel universe in which former Secretary of State George P. Shultz has a “c” in his last name, and the Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz has a “t.”
But Times corrections are so much more than pedestrian spelling mistakes. They are wonderfully nuanced cultural explorations. When we misidentified the name of Bilbo Baggins’s sword in “The Hobbit” as Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver, it was both the greatest and the nerdiest correction of all time. (Real nerds also noted that Bilbo Baggins, being a Hobbit, didn’t carry a “sword” but a “dagger.” Its name was Sting.)
Back when I was a cub reporter at The Peoria Journal Star, I was moping around the office kicking myself over some ridiculous thing I got wrong. One of the veteran reporters pulled me aside. “Hey, Vecsey,” he said. “Look: Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers lock theirs away. But reporters print theirs for the whole damn world to see.”
In the 30-some years from then to now, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to shake off your mistakes and move on. And someday, by God, I will learn how to do that.