Writing Right: Getting it Correct, The First Time

August 4th, 2009

On July 17, one of the great legends of journalism, Walter Cronkite, died. And somewhere, he’s shaking his head.

Weeks before Cronkite died, the New York Times prepared an appraisal of his life; a common tactic when an individual of such stature enters into a terminal illness. The purpose of preparing the piece in advance is to allow thorough and wholly accurate reporting. At least, that’s the intent.

The actual article, “Cronkite’s Signature: Approachable Authority,” written by Alessandra Stanley, was riddled, by any standards, with errors. In just 998 words, Alessandra – and a variety of others who touched the piece – produced seven significant mistakes.

Thankfully, the Public Editor of the Times, Clark Hoyt, wasn’t as sloppy. Hoyt details how the article was produced, Stanley’s history of errors and how such egregious errors could occur . And here, taken directly from the Times’ correction, are the inaccuracies:

1.    Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30.
2.    Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches.
3.    Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26.
4.    “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970.
5.    A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar.
6.    Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor.
7.    Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

So, why regurgitate these mistakes in this blog today? To publicly ridicule the reporter, the New York Times or journalists? Stanley has already been chastised by the media and public alike.

Instead, what changes will this lead to? Will newsrooms around the world edit-the-editing-process, while simultaneously yanking in their belts? Perhaps as importantly, what will businesses learn from this? Will they be more deliberate and thoughtful with their words?

If Walter Cronkite taught us anything, it is to be precise with our words and careful with how we communicate.

But, for now, he’s shaking his head somewhere.

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