Oldest, newest, costliest, largest, smallest, most corrupt, most ethical, most effective, least harmful… journalists often apply these superlatives to a person, company, product or other entity. And that in turn often leads to corrections like this one from Saturday’s New York Times:
A chart with the continuation of an article on Thursday about General Motors’ initial stock offering erroneously attributed a distinction to the offering. While it was the largest initial stock offering, at $23.1 billion, it was not the largest stock offering ever. That distinction is held by Petrobras, which sold $69.8 billion in new shares in September.
The easiest way to avoid making an error with a superlative is to hedge and tone it down. Calling something one of the largest initial stock offerings offers some wiggle room. On the other hand, I can almost hear a copy editor whispering in my ear, “precision.” Is it the second largest? Third largest? The reader deserves to know. And you should, too.
The New York Times encounters errors involving superlatives on a consistent basis. To help avoid them, the paper recently began encouraging departments to have reporters insert the source of their information within their copy. Greg Brock, the Times senior editor for standards who oversees the paper’s corrections, said “we are trying to institutionalize a system whereby reporters must put in [bold] the source of their information immediately after words like ‘first, only, last, tallest,’ etc.,” he said. The bolded words don’t actually print, but are visible to the journalists handling the copy.
“If they know it is the ‘tallest’ building in the world, they have to have gotten that information from somewhere,” he continued. “If it’s from memory, that raises a red flag automatically. If the source information is not in [bold], then editors are supposed to ask for it. And if the reporter can’t supply it, then the editors are supposed to take the reference out for that edition until it can be confirmed.”
Brock said a common cause of errors with superlatives is when a qualifying factor is left out.
“We often trip up in such news stories when we are announcing things like, ‘X became the first to circumnavigate the globe (under whatever circumstances),’” he said. “Invariably we leave out a key word: ‘The first woman to circumnavigate …’”
He added that communication is key to making the Times’ bolded sources work.
“The best way to make it second nature is to have the editors who work directly with the reporters talk to each reporter,” he said. “Some type of newsroomwide memo never works and is seldom read.”
A benefit of the Times’ process is that it requires reporters to give extra consideration to their source. If a reporter suddenly lacks confidence after seeing a source noted in bold, then perhaps it’s time to find another one. Or to hedge — and be prepared to explain why.