Why mocking the errors of other journalists does us all harm in the long run

Journalists are a funny lot. We complain often that readers often don’t value the work that we do – and then seem to spend a lot of time ensuring as many people as possible see the unfortunate errors which sometimes creep into our work.

A couple of weekends ago, a friend – who doesn’t work in newspapers – sent me a link to a blog post.

On that blog post – written by esteemed former Northern Echo editor Peter Sands – was a page from the Rossendale Free Press, which had fallen foul of the curse of ‘spellcheck all’. At least, that’s assumption Sands made. As a result, several local villages and towns took on new names, as did the the website domain name at the top of the page, and indeed the name of the paper.

Unfortunate? Sure. Unheard of? Certainly not.

Now there’s nothing new in such unfortunate incidents being shared around in newsrooms, passed between journalists with a grimace on the face and mutterings of ‘there but for the grace’.

But we seemed to have developed an unhealthy habit of sharing such incidents online in a very public way, putting those involved up for ridicule and, as a result, damaging the titles they work for.

Is saying that Sands’ post is damaging a little strong? I’d argue not – my friend, as a I said, doesn’t work in newspapers. He sent it because I’d find it funny. He lives outside Rossendale but that’s now his impression of the Free Press.  And what an unfair impression it is too. 

Done well, social media takes the reader to the heart of the newsroom. The danger is what they see there. 

And that’s the problem with the sharing of such errors – it does a huge dis-service in the eyes of the wider public who don’t see it with the same ‘there but for the grace’ knowledge journalists have.

As a reporter in Blackburn, Lancashire once became Lancashite. Slip of the finger or slip of the spell check, I’m not sure. On another occasion, a front page story about a giant brasserie opening in Blackburn became a giant brassiere opening in Blackburn – that one was certainly spellcheck. We had inquests in the newsroom, and moved on.

We didn’t have former editors of large regional newspapers writing blog posts about it, ironically under a header which announces the blog is ‘supporting journalism.’

And we didn’t have Holdthefrontpage joining in with spurious stories about the same thing a week later.  “Who needs sub editors when you have spell check, right? Wrong!” was the flimsy intro, knocking down an assertion that nobody who has been anywhere near a newsroom in the last 20 years would ever make.

The journalist behind the article dashed off on to Twitter to declare it a ‘funny for Thursday.’ Probably even funnier for those who saw it 10 days earlier. The fact that three of the places which were renamed are actually towns and not villages – as the HTFP article suggests – demonstrated the danger of throwing the spotlight on another journalist’s slip of the of the pen.

HTFP will probably argue that it’s been one of their most read stories of the week, therefore it was justified. I imagine that the vagina and penises fighting was also this site’s biggest story for months, but I doubt they’ll be writing about those topics every week. I could work with any of the websites I’m responsible for and triple traffic by asking for all stories to be about UFOs – but it’s not what we’re about, and not what audiences expect. Or want.

HTFP has form for this sort of ‘show ’em up’ mocking, but it often backfires, as it always will for anyone who indulges in it  – because you’ll make mistakes too.  When it ran a piece asking if this was the longest ever headline, the answer was that clearly no it wasn’t. It’s much more likely that the CMS used takes the intro as a headline if a headline isn’t added. So no, it wasn’t the longest headline ever.

Press Gazette ensured as many people as possible saw a headline which contained the  phrase ‘baasic journalistic checks’ – which was on the website I work with for all of five minutes before it was spotted and changed, did anyone at Press Gazette Towers stop to think that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones?

Of course, there’s an irony to a journalist complaining about errors being broadcast. And the spotlight our online journalism finds itself in now is in many ways a good thing. Scary Duck’s ‘Angry People in Local Newspapers’ has much fun with a newspaper tradition which probably needs binning. Flickr groups which share odd newspaper bills raise a good point about how we promote our products. The Custard Shortage book prompts an interesting discussion about what makes news.

But what is really achieved with snarky pieces by former editors or trade websites revelling in unfortunate errors in papers? Nothing at all, because the errors weren’t intended. A former editor flashing it around the web or a trade website getting giddy over it won’t stop something like that happening again. It does, however, provide those with an axe to grind the opportunity to talk about the good old days, the problems with modern journalism and how the web is killing everything.

And for those unfamiliar with the Rossendale Free Press, I’d argue it’s one of the best weeklies going. It won at least six campaigns last year and is led by an editor who has taken it back to the heart of the community with an excellent mix of agenda-setting content and hyperlocal news. All of which, I’m sure, will be celebrated by those claiming to be ‘supporting journalism.’

In an age where we’re fighting for every reader, we need to be celebrating what works, not ensuring the world and its wife sees a slip up. There’s nothing new about a spelling error. It’s just that for many of those people revelling in the errors of others, their slip ups are generally only available via the local library. 


2 thoughts on “Why mocking the errors of other journalists does us all harm in the long run

  1. I see your point, but I cannot agree. If we can feel free to criticise others – politicians, teachers, the police and so on ad infinitum – then we must also be ready, willing and able to criticise ourselves and each other, and to do so in public. Failing to highlight our own errors, whether human or technological (really only another way of saying human, as the results of all spell-checkings by machines should be double-checked by humans) might suggest double standards, and we have to put up with enough of such claims already. We all make errors, and we all have to live with the results and fall-out. In the end, it’s a case of those who can’t stand the heat leaving the kitchen.

    1. Thanks Mike. I agree we should not be above criticism, but we should question the motive of the criticism. Why do we seek to be a watchdog over the police, teachers, politicians etc? If it’s just to criticise them for anything and everything, that’s wrong. If it’s to act as a watchdog and hopefully improve things on behalf of our readers, that’s another.

      So websites like Angry People and discussions about ‘what is news’, to me, serve to make us think about what we do. Dashing around going ‘look, someone’s made a spelling error’ doesn’t achieve anything, unless we assume the journalist who wrote it isn’t bothered. Which I suspect is rarely the case.

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