How Do We Prevent Typos and Other Errors From Appearing in Our Stories?

At the beginning of the year, we asked ProPublica Illinois readers what they wanted to know about the way we work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this dispatch, ProPublica Illinois Deputy Editor Steve Mills answers a question about errors.

Lately, I am being driven mad by errors everywhere I read, from misspellings to wrong word usage to crappy and nonsensical sentences, and from sources like The Atlantic and the NYT [New York Times]. Are there no more human eyes on the prize? What the Hades is going on? — Gale R. Greenleaf

I share your frustration. Nothing drives me battier than seeing a word misspelled or misused. Unless, of course, that word is in a story I’ve written or edited. Then I really go off the rails. But the problem, to my mind, is not that there aren’t human eyes on the prize, as you suggest, but that there are. We’re painfully human. We make mistakes.

Your most trusted news sources have always made mistakes. That’s one reason there’s a spot, typically on Page 2 of their print editions, where errors are corrected, and why we typically don’t fix errors without acknowledging them in the story. It’s part of being transparent and accountable.

If you’re noticing more mistakes, it’s probably a byproduct of the digital news age, which has led to shrinking newsrooms across the country and, as a consequence, fewer reporters and copy editors. That, in turn, leads to heavier workloads, and less time spent reading and rereading a story.

With quicker news cycles, speed is prized — often at the expense of spelling and grammar. Reporters and editors race to post stories and beat the competition. Rushing isn’t at all conducive to accuracy.

There’s an attitude, too, that you can post first and fix later. You can’t do that in a print product. Once a story is printed, an incorrect fact or misspelled word is there to stay. It can be corrected, but it cannot be fixed. Online, you can post a story and tweak it repeatedly. In fact, you can tinker with it days, months or even years after it’s published.

At ProPublica Illinois, everything we publish goes through several editing layers. That includes short updates, Twitter threads and other pieces our readers might not consider traditional articles, including these reader questions about journalism.

After a reporter has finished a story — and reporting, in my book, includes fact-checking and proofreading — it figuratively lands in my computer. If it’s a story written on deadline to be posted immediately or the next day, I’ll read it several times in fairly short order. If it’s not, I’ll read it even more over several days.

In the case of a longer investigation, I can lose count of how many times I read and edit it.

Like most high school students, I also use spell check, although I don’t rely on it. Instead, I do a slow read through a story, sounding out every word in my mind, trusting I’ll catch errors I’ve missed on previous edits.

After I edit a story, ProPublica Illinois Editor-in-Chief Louise Kiernan edits it. Like me, she reads stories more than once. Invariably, she catches something that I’ve missed — sometimes something small, sometimes something big.

From here, stories go to New York, where Managing Editor Robin Fields and President Dick Tofel read them. Robin edits stories for the same sorts of things Louise and I read them for — to make sure they make sense, they’re fair and accurate, well-written and, perhaps most important, error-free.

Dick reads stories primarily for legal issues, though he catches more than his share of errors. In many cases, and particularly with major investigations, ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg edits stories as well. And our web producer, Vignesh Ramachandran, gives everything a final read as he prepares stories for publication.

Sadly, our methods are not foolproof. No fewer than five people edited last week’s newsletter and I still had to fix a typo — a stray couple of letters — on the version that we post on our website.

After we had posted it, of course.

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