Poynter on the ongoing epidemic of name misspellings
Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore—that’s Mallary, not Mallory—has a great piece today, “Why misspelled names are so common & what journalists are doing to prevent them.”
Fifteen hundred words sounds like a lot to say: Journalists misspell names a lot even though it’s really easy to check names and get them right, and we all should do that. But name misspellings are a massive problem. And Tenore knows about it first-hand. Her first name is not spelled the common way, with o after the double-l, so she sees her name butchered often.
Tenore has various stats showing that something like one in five newspaper corrections has to do with misspelling a name, But even that doesn’t get at the size of the problem. She writes that when her own name is misspelled, she lets the offending publication know. “More often than not,” she writes, “I’ve found that they fix the spelling but don’t write a correction.”
That jibes with my own experience as a writer and editor. Over the decade and a half I’ve been working online, I must have fixed thousands of misspelled names in my own and other writers’ stories. It’s never occurred to me that that fix required a formal correction.
Whether misspelled names deserve formal correction notices or not, they are certainly avoidable with a little effort, and that effort is well worth it. As Philip B. Corbett—one L, two Ts—wrote in an After Deadline blog post on NYTimes.com last year:
Every time we get a name wrong, we chip away at The Times’s credibility in the eyes of readers. It’s embarrassing when we misspell well-known names. Even worse is misspelling the names of ordinary people who may appear in The Times only once. Their moment in the spotlight is spoiled, and they’re likely to tell everyone they know that The Times can’t get its facts straight.
At Bleacher Report, we don’t publish the names of ordinary citizens that often, but readers know how to spell the names of the very famous people we do write about. If you can’t spell Mike Krzyzewski’s name right, what else can you not be trusted to know?
I just spelled Mike Krzyzewski’s name right. Know how I know? Because I copied and pasted it from a reliable place. I did the same with Corbett and Mallary with an A Jean Tenore, whose names I copied from their bylines, though Tenore points out that the Wall Street Journal has misspelled one of its own reporters’ name in a byline.
“What journalists are doing to prevent” name misspellings is a list of actions that can be grouped under common sense: Look up every name, even if you’re sure you’ve got it right; copy and paste whenever you can; ask interview subjects to spell their names for you, and make sure you’ve written it correctly, and so on.
It’s not hard. It just takes those extra few seconds of effort with each and every name. There isn’t much payoff. Nobody ever thanks you for spelling the names correctly. But getting them wrong costs you credibility, and that’s a high price.