That's indisputable, as Barron's tale illustrates. But it raises a dilemma for any paper, like the Times, that aims to be conscientious about the factual record. When the Times fixes "today's or yesterday's mistakes," it does update the text to reflect the correction. At some point between "yesterday" and "five, ten or fifty years ago," the paper stops doing so -- it leaves mistakes like Lewis's Lindh error in circulation.
Corbett admits that the Times has not drawn any "bright line" to set an expiration date on correctability in its archives, but prioritizes more recent errors. "In the case of the Lindh correction," he says, "we made an exception because the error had arisen currently in a public, newsworthy context."
You can sympathize with Corbett, and newsroom managers everywhere shuffling limited staff and resources, as they contemplate opening up countless stories in decades-deep archives to fine-tooth-comb reappraisal. Unlocking such a Pandora's box of incertitude is daunting. It demands bravery and vision.
But it can't be dodged. The Web, and its search tools, have made it inevitable. The dust of the old paper-clipping morgue, the wind-and-rewind crawl of the microfilm reels, and the costly metered searches of the Lexis-Nexis era are gone, and decades-old information is as easily accessible online as today's headline.
In this world, where the noise and pace of news keeps accelerating, an archive like the Times' is more widely relied upon, and more valuable, than ever before. "We do try to do as much original reporting as possible, but for doing multiple topics a day, we often rely on sources like the New York Times," says KQED's Dan Zoll. "It's unusual for that to backfire on us."
Such a resource can no longer be treated as a static repository of established fact. As its errors continue to surface, its guardians must accept the responsibility of repairing them effectively. Otherwise, they're telling us there's a statute of limitations on their commitment to truth.
* * *
Journalists tend to be confident that most of their errors are efficiently caught and corrected. As New York Times managing editor and incoming executive editor Jill Abramson recently put it, "In the online world, the chances of a serious error in The Times going unnoticed or uncorrected are pretty slim."
The Lindh story suggests otherwise. Unfortunately, the best research we have on the matter paints a different picture, too. Scott Maier, a professor at the University of Oregon, put the work of 22 newspapers under the microscope and found that "59 percent of local news and feature stories were found by news sources to have at least one error." A followup study found that only two percent of those stories were ever corrected.
You can argue these numbers down a bit by quarreling with Maier's approach, but it's hard to avoid concluding that there are far more uncorrected errors in the press than most journalists believe. And you can buttress that conclusion by asking yourself how many errors you found the last time you -- or your company, your neighborhood, your profession, anything that you're deeply knowledgeable about -- got covered by the media. While many of these errors are indeed trivial, you can never be certain today what sort of error will prove non-trivial tomorrow (as the U.S. State Department found when it failed to apprehend Christmas bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab because his name had been misspelled).