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Craig Silverman

Craig Silverman (@CraigSilverman) is founder and editor of Regret the Error, a website that reports on media accuracy and corrections. He is the author of a book of the same name, and serves as the managing editor of PBS MediaShift and digital journalism director of OpenFile.ca.

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Check out Craig Silverman’s roundup of worst business-reporting errors in 2010

Regret the Business ErrorJournalists on every beat are looking back at the trends and stories that defined the past 12 months. I engage in my own annual retrospective on Regret the Error by offering the Year in Media Errors and Corrections and a round-up of incidents of journalistic plagiarism. Business journalism was represented in both.

For example, this correction from the Boston Globe was included among my favorite typos:

“At least a couple of dozen readers kindly wrote to point out that when I called Wall Street bankers ‘glutinous’ in a Wednesday column, I probably meant ‘gluttonous.’ I’d love to tell you otherwise, but I apologize for the mistake.”

I’m also partial to this business-related typo from the Los Angeles Times:

“Bell councilman: In the Oct. 13 Section A, a profile of Lorenzo Velez, the only Bell City Council member not charged with a crime, described Bell as ‘a city dominated by blue-color Mexican immigrants like himself.’ It should have said ‘blue-collar.'”

My look back at incidents of plagiarism noted the fate of New York Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe, who resigned after it was revealed he had lifted material from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources.

One notable error from the past year that didn’t make my lists was the Daily Mail’s business story about a potential recall of the iPhone 4 that was based solely on a tweet from a fake Steve Jobs Twitter account. Not exactly a high point for business reporting…

Statute with head in hands by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos

Image by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos.

Over the course of the year, I collected a variety of business-related corrections. They typically appear on my site under the headline “Bad for business” because they illustrate how careless reporting can damage a company or businessperson. Below are a few that bear repeating, including this correction to an error-riddled real estate report from the Los Angeles Times:

“Bel-Air mansion: An article in Friday’s Section A about the Bel-Air mansion that is the most expensive sold in the U.S. this year was published with a photograph of another house and some of the details related to that house. The photo of the correct house is shown here. The exterior of the mansion does not feature more than 30,000 pieces of limestone mined in France. The entry, living room, library and master bedroom are not gilded with 24-karat gold. The home doesn’t have 90 sconces and 120 chandeliers made in France, and it does not have an average room size of about 1,100 square feet. In addition, the article said that Joyce Rey and Stacy Gottula of Coldwell Banker Beverly Hills shared the listing with Mauricio Umansky of Hilton & Hyland, Beverly Hills. Rey and Gottula had the listing alone.”

Other notables include this from The Cairns Post in Australia:

“In yesterday’s edition of The Cairns Post, it was wrongly reported that Mr Bob Harris was flying with another man in a four-seat Cessna 172 when it crashed about 20kms southwest of Mt Coleridge, near Innisfail.
Mr Harris was not flying in the plane which crashed.
Mr Harris’ flight school business and Hinchinbrook Air Services charters continues to operate.
The Cairns Post accepts that our article has caused considerable embarrassment to Mr Harris. The Cairns Post apologises for the error.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“A Dec. 25 front-page story about commercial properties scheduled for foreclosure auctions had incorrect information. The Dunwoody Hall retail center in DeKalb County has not been foreclosed on and is not scheduled for foreclosure auction.”

Toronto Sun:

“A series of articles concerning illegal sales of tobacco products published in the Sun (including its webpage) on Friday, April 9, included photographs and video footage of the ‘DKs’ and ‘Putters’ tobacco products manufactured by Grand River Enterprises Six Nations Ltd.
The Sun wishes to clarify that it did not intend to suggest that these products are in any way illegal or that there is anything illegal or improper about production or sale of these products in circumstances that are permitted under Canadian law.
The article was intended to highlight concern over the sale of cigarettes that are illegally distributed in violation of Ontario’s Tobacco Tax Act.

The Dominion Post (New Zealand):

“Yesterday’s editorial about the potential sale of 16 Crafar farms to a Chinese consortium said the farms were placed in receivership when the Crafar family went bankrupt. That is incorrect. None of the directors of the Crafar farms or members of the Crafar family have been made bankrupt. The companies that own the farms were placed in receivership by the bank that lent money to them. The error is regretted.”

New Orleans Times-Picayune:

“Seafood story erred: Amy’s Seafood in Westwego is paying 75 cents to $1.50 more per pound for shrimp since the Gulf of Mexico oil spill created a shortage. A story in Friday’s editions incorrectly reported the price as 75 cents to $1.50 per pound. The story also said that while patrons of one seafood stand know products it sells are safe, ‘the same cannot be said for customers of Amy’s Seafood, which occupies a nearby stall.’ The seafood sold at Amy’s is safe.”

The Associated Press:

“In a story July 27 about Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., The Associated Press, relying on a preliminary transcript from StreetEvents.com, erroneously reported a quote by President and CEO Marc Casper. Casper’s correct quote: ‘We are especially pleased with our organic growth results given the head winds of a weak flu season and the Biosite contract transition, which together lowered our organic growth by over a percentage point in the quarter.’ He did not say ‘especially concerned’ or use the word ‘bioscience’ in his comment.

Keep those mistakes in mind as you enter a new year of business reporting. Here’s to fewer errors in 2011! For ideas on how to achieve that goal, please see this archive of Regret the Business Error tips.

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Avoiding errors when using ‘largest,’ ‘costliest’ and other superlatives

This chart in The New York Times incorrectly stated that General Motors’ recent stock offering was the largest ever. Petrobras has that honor.

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.

Regret the Business ErrorThe 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.Huge Pinata Superlatives

“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.

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4 tips for reporting on medical and scientific studies

REGRET THE BUSINESS ERROR:  Business journalists are probably more comfortable inside a factory or boardroom instead of a laboratory or operating room. But scientific and medical studies frequently impact the business world, which means you need to know when a study is presenting important new data, or bringing forward initial findings that may or may not matter.

Regret the Business ErrorFor help with making sense of these studies, I spoke with Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health and an associate adjunct professor at New York University, where he teaches medical journalism. Along with Gary Schwitzer, the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, he produced “Covering Medical Research: A Guide for Reporting on Studies,” which came out last year. (You get it free with a membership to the Association of Health Care Journalists, where Oransky currently serves as treasurer.)

Below are four tips from Oransky, who has an M.D. as well as being a journalist.

1. Get the full study and read it – “I think it’s journalistic malpractice to not have the full study in front of you when you’re reporting,” Oransky says. Read the introduction to get a sense of the overall study, and note all references to previous studies in the same field. The authors of those studies will make good outside sources. Oransky recommends examining any data tables to discover findings that aren’t laid out in other parts of the study. The discussion and results sections of any study are also key, and Oransky says it’s essential to read the limitations. “Even if you’re on a tight deadline, the limitations will often … put stuff in context for you,” he says.

2. Evaluate the type of study – “Was it done on humans or on animals or just in a petri dish?” Oransky says. “A lot of studies that may move markets and become a story are promising, but the reality is they are not going to make it to prime time or [FDA] approval, for example.” Other things to consider: was the study published in a reputable journal or presented at a major conference? “Or is it just a press release?” he says. Quality medical research often comes in the form of a late stage randomized controlled double blind trial (RCT), or a “meta analysis” that combines several RCTs and pools the data. If the material is labeled a case study or observational study, you’re dealing with a less rigorous form of investigation.

Medical Research

Photo by U.S. Army Africa

3. Ask dumb questions – If you lack experience dealing with scientific material, don’t be afraid to ask for definitions of jargon and scientific terms. This is no time to pretend you understand everything. Oransky says the science and medical industries are full of jargon that mask important details. “You’ll get off the phone and have a notebook full of gibberish and jargon,” he says. “You can’t be afraid of asking a dumb question.”

4. Beware of cause and effect – Be especially skeptical of studies that claim a direct link of X to a reduction/increase in Y. It’s rarely that simple, and this is where spin enters the equation. “One thing a lot of reporters make a mistake on is to ascribe cause and effect when you can’t really prove causal effect,” Oransky says. “You can’t say anything about causal effect unless you’re really properly controlling for every possible confounding factor.”

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How to build a personalized accuracy checklist

If I say the name, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, you know exactly whom I’m talking about. You’re likely picturing the widely circulated photo of him in his uniform, mustache front and center. But who’s this guy:

Don’t feel bad if you can’t place the face. His name is Jeffrey Skiles, and he was the first officer of US Airways Flight 1549, which ended up ditching in the Hudson River in January 2009 with no loss of life.

Everyone focuses on what Captain Sully was doing during the flight. Fair enough. But Skiles was performing a task that was just as important. When the plane lost power in both engines and Sully took over flying the plane, Skiles began going through an engine-restart checklist. And when Sully made the call to land on the river, he began guiding them through a ditching checklist.

Checklists helped save lives that day. They do it every day inside airplane cockpits, operating rooms and nuclear power stations. They can also help you avoid errors in your reporting and editing.

Regret the Business ErrorAs noted in my first column, I have a free accuracy checklist available for download on my website. If you use this checklist every time you work on a story, you’d see a demonstrative reduction in factual errors. Don’t believe me?

When the World Health Organization introduced a surgical checklist and tested its use all over the world, it resulted in a 40 percent reduction in outpatient deaths. A test of checklists by the San Jose Mercury News saw a reduction in errors of 10 percent. You can read more about the history and efficacy of checklists in this Columbia Journalism Review column by me, or check out The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, a book by New Yorker staff writer and surgeon Atul Gawande.

My accuracy checklist is useful and effective for any journalist, but the reality is that business journalists can benefit from creating their own customized checklists. Depending on your beat, you will have very specific things you need to look at in each piece of reporting. So here’s a five-step process for creating and using your own customized checklist.

Craig Silverman's Checklist from Regret the Error

You can download a PDF of Craig Silverman’s accuracy checklist for journalists at his website, regrettheerror.com

1. Download my checklist. This is your starting point. Look at the items listed on my checklist and ask yourself what’s missing. Is there something you do to help avoid error that isn’t on there? What’s a checking or accuracy-related piece of information that you need to verify for most stories? You also need to make sure any of your weaknesses are reflected on the checklist, which is best done if you…

2. Keep an error log. My first column for BusinessJournalism.org explained how to do this. Once you’ve been logging your errors for a few weeks or months, you can see the kind of mistakes you’re making and add them to the checklist. An error log also becomes a way to evaluate if your checklist is working. Do those old mistakes still occur? Are you getting better? Your log provides the data to check up on your checklist.

3. Build your personal checklist. No need to hire a graphic designer. There are lots of checklist templates for Word, and you can also go to http://printablechecklist.org/, http://tadalist.com/ or http://checkvist.com/ to build a free one easily. Take the items collected in steps one and two and customize your checklist. Keep items from my checklist that work for you and add your custom fields.

4. Print and laminate. It’ll never work if you have to print off a new checklist every time you start a new story. Here’s how to avoid that: print a few copies of your new checklist onto good quality photo paper, get them laminated and then buy a dry-erase marker. Voila — now you have checklists you can use again and again. Just wipe them clean after each story is finished. Having more than one on hand also means you can manage several stories at once.

5. Make it a habit. The only way to get the full value of a checklist is to use it every time. You have to commit, or you won’t get the results. This is hugely important. Using a checklist every time also means that the data in your error log is closely related to the holes in your checklist. So you can constantly go back to steps two and three to keep your checklist fresh. Make it a habit, track your progress, and update your checklist. Do those three things, and you’ll be a better journalist.

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5 tips for avoiding errors in earnings reporting

Regret the Business ErrorAh, earnings season. CFOs reach for their lucky pen, belt, shoes or other good luck charm. Investor relations teams prepare to highlight the good and mitigate the bad. And if you listen closely, you can hear conference call lines being initiated all over the country.

Reporting on corporate earnings leaves a journalist open to committing a range of mistakes. From misinterpreting data to missing a hidden story or falling for a company’s spin, the dangers are many. And the time constraints are serious.

Chris Roush

I contacted Chris Roush, the Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Show Me The Money: Writing Business And Economics Stories For Mass Communication, to help identify some of the common mistakes made by journalists covering earnings reports. Below are five tips to help you avoid error and deliver solid earnings reporting.

1. Beware of earnings per share. “The biggest mistake that comes with covering earnings is that business journalists write earnings stories based on the earnings per share number and not the net income number,” says Roush. “That’s a mistake because companies can manipulate the earning per share number by buying back shares of their company during that quarter.”

2. Get on the earnings call. “Not enough attention is put on the conference call,” Roush says. “A lot of time an executive will say something during a conference all that presents a totally different picture than what the numbers say in the earnings release. Or they might give guidance for what future earnings are going to be for the next quarter or year — and that could be dramatically different than what Wall Street is expecting.” He also recommends reporters listen to the interaction between the executives and analysts. Is there tension? Hostility? A shift in tone can signify something bigger.
Earnings search on Google
3. Know when to ignore the stock price. If a company is in bankruptcy protection, Roush says to not bother reporting what happened with company’s stock price on the day of an earnings release. Instead, he says, “you should mention what the bonds of that company did that day.”

4. Read the whole thing. Some earnings releases are ridiculously long. But, as is often the case with releases, bad news is likely to be buried or saved until the end. “They can sometimes be 20 pages long, and some companies are intentionally trying to overwhelm business reporters by giving so much information that they can’t digest it all very quickly,” Roush says. For example, companies that are taking a charge on earnings will often reveal that in a different section than the main earnings information.

5. Make the right comparisons. “Compare a company’s quarterly earnings to the same quarter from the previous year, not the previous quarter,” Roush says. “Most businesses are cyclical, making the better comparison the same time a year ago … Some reporters make the mistake of comparing the third quarter to the second quarter. You can’t do that.” He also recommends reporters compare the results with competing companies. “Don’t forget to compare the income growth to a major competitor,” he says. “If Lowe’s net income is growing faster than Home Depot’s, then that’s a good indication it’s performing better.” This also ensures you don’t miss out on an industry trend.

Do you have other advice to share? Please add it in the comments.

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Get over your fear – and even get friendly with numbers

Craig Silverman's Regret the Business ErrorImagine telling an editor that it’s too confusing for you to have to keep track of people’s names and titles for your story. I know, you’re thinking that would never happen.

Yet journalists do basically the same thing all the time when it comes to math and numbers.

“It’s okay if you walk up to an editor and say, ‘I can’t deal with these numbers; you have to make the copy editor deal with it,’” says Sarah Cohen, the author of the book,  “Numbers in the Newsroom: Using Math and Statistics in News.” “But it’s not okay to say, ‘I can’t bring myself to go up and ask someone how old they are.’”

Cohen is admittedly a rare breed. She was an economist before becoming a journalist, and she eventually served as database editor for The Washington Post. She’s now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University with a focus on computational journalism. Cohen isn’t scared of numbers, but she is afraid of what happens to good reporting when a journalist mangles the math or simply refuses to engage with numbers.

Numerical errors can occur for a variety of reasons — I compiled a quick list here – but Cohen says one of the larger causes is the fear of numbers and math that seems to pervade newsrooms.

Math and numbers are a constant in journalism. It’s more difficult to find a piece of reporting that doesn’t include numbers than to locate one that does. We handle numbers on a daily basis, which means we have to get comfortable with them. Cohen has a suggestion for how to get started.

Today’s Tip: “Give yourself a sense of scale,” she says. “That way, when you look at a number, you will know if it’s big or small, and if it’s significant in some way. Then you suddenly have a way to do your story.”

Sarah Cohen, Knight Professor at Duke University

Sarah Cohen

And to get it right.

You can gain a sense of scale by familiarizing yourself with the key numbers related to your beat, industry, community, etc.

“If you’re covering an industry like, say, retailing then get a sense of what makes a big company. How big is Walmart?” she says. “Understand what’s big and small in the industry and what the average salaries and wages are. What’s a high-paying or low-paying job? What do people consider a high unemployment rate or low unemployment rate?”

You can apply those examples to any beat or area of coverage; the key is to familiarize yourself to the point where you can spot trends and mistakes. For example, if you know the scale, you are less likely to confuse millions and billions of dollars — a common error in business stories.

A little bit of time spent with analyst reports, industry overviews and government reports can put you in good stead to avoid error — and spot a scoop down the line.

Do you have other tips for avoiding numerical errors? Please share them in the comments.

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Checklists and Error Logs – good habits reduce errors

Craig Silverman's Regret the Business ErrorLike people who can’t help asking for health advice from any doctor they meet, journalists who recognize me as the Regret the Error guy usually have two questions on their mind. I view these queries as a reward for spending six years researching, tracking and reporting on press errors and accuracy. First, they want to know the worst media mistake ever (define your criteria, and I can give you an answer); second, they want to know how to prevent factual errors.

The latter is a question I love to get, but the answer is anything but straightforward. That’s why I’m excited to start this every-other-Friday column for the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, and why I don’t worry about running out of material.

That doesn’t mean I can do it on my own. I hope all of you will add comments that share tips and advice for achieving accuracy in business reporting. I hope to combine my knowledge of accuracy and error prevention with the specific expertise of business journalists. It’s going to be a team effort.

I’ll kick things off by sharing three core pieces of an error-prevention strategy. When someone asks me about preventing errors, these are the points I try to rattle off before their eyes glaze over.

Understand The History

Academic researchers have been studying U.S. newspaper accuracy since the 1930s. (Read this paper: Tip of the Iceberg: Published Corrections Represent Less than Two Percent of Factual Errors in Newspapers by leading accuracy researcher Scott Maier to get a sense of the data.) These studies have helped determine the most common mistakes made by newspaper reporters. The below list is a good starting point for determining where you and your colleagues will probably go wrong. These are the top 11 types of factual errors made by U.S. newspapers, in order of frequency:

  1. Misquotes
  2. Incorrect headline
  3. Numerical error
  4. Misspelling
  5. Incorrect job title
  6. Incorrect name
  7. Incorrect location
  8. Incorrect time
  9. Incorrect date
  10. Incorrect address
  11. Incorrect age

Self-Diagnose and Track

Now it’s time to get personal. Grab a pad of paper or open up a document on your computer. Title the pad or document “Error Log” and start listing all the reporting mistakes you’ve made. Chances are that many of them fall into the above categories, but maybe you’ll discover other types of errors that crop up in your work. An Error Log helps you identify your weaknesses and, as a result, predicts the mistakes you’ll make in the future. Mistakes are embarrassing and painful to recall, but they are also the path to accuracy. Create an Error Log, and update it every time you fail.

Create Good Habits

Accuracy is a learned behavior. You can’t take a pill or purchase a piece of software to make yourself more accurate. It takes effort, practice and a willingness to improve your work habits. The key is to map good habits to the errors you make. Now you see why an Error Log is essential. If your Log is filled with misspelled names, it’s time to change the way to you handle this information. One good habit is to start every interview by asking the person to spell his or her name, title and company. Do that every time, and you won’t guess or forget to check it down the line.

Another habit I recommend is adapted from productivity guru David Allen’s Two-Minute Rule: If it will take you two minutes or less to verify a fact, say by sending an e-mail to double-check information, do it right away. Delaying makes it more likely that you’ll forget, or that you’ll do a poor job come deadline. Do it now.

Finally, the single best habit is to use a checklist while reporting, writing and editing. I’ll go into more detail about a checklist for business journalism in a future column; for now, you can download a free accuracy checklist from my site and read about why checklists are so effective.

Now it’s your turn — please share your error-prevention habits and tips in the comments. And here’s a reason to join in: The person who provides the best tip or piece of advice between now and the end of December will win a copy of my book, Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech.