This recent correction from the New York Times left me puzzled, not to mention amused:
An article on Wednesday about the continuing role of members of corporate boards who served on companies at the center of the financial crisis referred incorrectly at one point to a former Bear Stearns director who joined the board of the investment bank Gleacher & Company last year. He is Henry S. Bienen, not “Mr. Goldstein.”
It’s almost as if “Mr. Goldstein” is the placeholder name for any top investment banker, which of course brings up some uncomfortable associated ethnic stereotypes. But the error itself is also notable for how disappointingly commonplace it is.
If you look at the list of the 11 most common errors made by newspaper reporters that I included in my first column, you’ll see that incorrect names comes in at number six, and incorrect job title is the fifth most common mistake.
Given how easy it can be to verify the spelling of someone’s name or job title, it’s embarrassing and unacceptable that these two mistakes are so common.
In the business world, a job title is a way of conveying status, experience and one’s role in an organization. (In journalism, as the old joke goes, adding “senior” or “executive” to someone’s job title is simply a good way to avoid having to give them a raise…)
As for someone’s name, well, that’s an extremely personal and important piece of information. I’ve heard form people who’ve had their name misspelled by a journalist and, while they understand that mistakes happen, they almost always think it’s a sign of sloppiness and unprofessionalism. People don’t forget it when you misspell their name. Journalists trying to cultivate good sources need to make sure to spell someone’s name right and include the key elements of their title.
One piece of advice I previously offered for handling names and job titles is to train yourself to ask a person to spell their name title at the start of every interview. That way, you never forget to take down the information. Here are five additional tips to avoid name and title errors:
1. Remember that titles can change at any time without notice. If you’re re-interviewing a source always start by asking them if their title or any other important information has changed.
2. Repeat it back. After you’ve written down someone’s information, read back the name and title to verify your heard everything correctly. (Same goes for age or other basic personal details.)
3. Keep away from the archives. It’s tempting to just do a search of Nexis or your organization’s archives to check the spelling of someone’s name and title. Don’t do it. This is a just a way to repeat the same errors other people have made.
4. Get their business card. This is a great source of name, title and corporate information. Just also be sure to also ask, “Has anything on here changed?”
5. Look to PR people. No, really. This is a situation where a company’s PR team can be helpful. They know what other reporters tend to get wrong about a company or executive, so it helps to verify basic factual elements with them.
Do you have any tips to share? Please add them in the comments below.