I made a mistake. And it got into print.
And now the question is, do I 'fess up?
If I'm writing for a newspaper and someone rats me out to the editors, and they decide it's significant enough, a tiny paragraph will appear in the corrections page, often located on page two. If nobody makes a peep, I could just let it slide.
Readers may remember the story that appeared in a previous edition and mentally replace my incorrect information with the right stuff. But there's a chance they won't have read the story and so furnishing a correction doesn't do them a whole lot of good.
On the web it's a different story. Permanence is one of the Web's chief characteristics, says James Glen Stovall in "Web Journalism: Practice and Promise of a New Medium," Pearson, 2004. Even so, he acknowledges, not every site, page or story will remain online forever. In the mid 1990s when the World Wide Web first emerged for public use, I noticed that I'd come across a site that interested me. But the next day, or month, I'd go back and it was gone. That happens less and less now.
When I make a mistake in an online story, it's there a long time, always a few clicks away, long after one in my my daily paper has gone onto its next usability stage: toilet lining for cats and birds; ignition device for wood fires, and denizen of recycling facility.
Back to my first question: do I confess my mistake?
Regardless of the medium, I'm a hardliner on the subject of corrections, despite how bad they may make me feel. As a reader, when I see "correction appended," I scroll to the bottom immediately. If it's a minor glitch, I feel reassured. If it's a substantial error that calls into question the validity of an entire story, I may read, but my antennae are up.
Confession time: In a column last week, I described Franz Kafka as a tormented German writer. Within a few hours, three people pointed out that Kafka wrote in German bu, as these readers pointed out, Kafka was born in Prague, making him a Czech writer who wrote in German.
I went back to the Web and found that I had relied on a biography that described Kafka as "German in language and culture." Then I looked at other biographies. They were right.
At first, I tried to wiggle free. Kafka wrote in German, I reasoned, so he was a German writer. But then it occurred to me that I wrote in English, but there's no way I'd refer to myself as an English writer; I'm American.
Correction time had arrived. I fixed the offending sentence in my online column, one of the gifts the Web has given writers. That way everybody who reads it from now on will be spared my mistake.
Generally, Poynter Online, where my column appears, appends the error at the bottom.And that's where it lies.
But what about the thousands of readers who subscribe to email delivery of my column? How do they find out? Do we email them a correction? One correspondent was a Swedish journalism professor who wrote, "By the way - Kafka was Czech, not German... It's one of the details we Europeans pay attention to. :)"
It's one I should have paid greater attention as well. Online or not, accuracy counts.
For penance, I'll become a regular reader of "Regret the Error -- Mistakes Happen," a site that describes itself as "reports on corrections, retractions, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the media."
Its creator, Craig Silverman, explains why in this Q&A, which includes two of his funniest errors. Tip: don't drink beverages when you get to these, unless you like expelling it through your notes.