Learning from Our Mistakes

Journalists must embrace their errors in order to avoid them in the future

They were guaranteed to fail.

Participants in a psychological study were asked trivia questions and told to offer their best answers. They could take their time, but that wasn’t going to help them: it was impossible to answer the questions correctly.

“We asked them what the name is of the African goddess of love and power,” said Nate Kornell, an assistant professor of psychology at Williams College and the study’s lead author. “Well, there is no African goddess of love and power. Africa has lots of religions.”

The goal of the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition was to measure the effect that getting things wrong had on the participants’ ability to retain the correct information. Kornell, a cognitive psychologist who studies learning and memory, said the trivia study and a related one both serve to prove the idea that “making errors is the best way to learn information that you want to learn.”

So, yes, that old saw about learning from your mistakes is true. Mistakes are an excellent form of instruction. The key, however, is that you’re actually made aware of your errors, and take time to learn from them. This is where most journalists and newsrooms fail. We don’t do a good job of collecting and correcting our mistakes, and we don’t often make the effort to learn from them.

“There’s a fair amount of research showing that if you go out and do some learning and you make mistakes, you are not going to benefit from those mistakes unless they are corrected,” Kornell told me.

In order to apply this research to journalism, two things have to happen. First, journalists need to receive feedback every time they make a mistake, or at least as often as possible. So news organizations have to do a better job of capturing and correcting errors. Fortunately, errors are easier to capture today because of the growing obsession with fact checking, the rise of media-monitoring organizations, and the ease with which someone can point out an error via e-mail or by commenting on a story. Of course, someone at the news organization needs to actually follow through on an error report, which remains a problem. Overall, though, the Internet is helping us correct more errors; in doing so, it’s creating a scenario whereby journalists can learn from their mistakes.

Unfortunately, once corrected, errors are usually forgotten—especially by the people who make them. We don’t like to dwell on our failures. That’s natural, but it also hampers our ability to avoid repeating errors. We need to embrace our errors and understand that they are the keys to more accurate work. Errors breed accuracy, if handled properly.

“The reason errors keep propagating is because people aren’t changing their behavior,” Kornell said. “In journalism, the goal would be to learn from your errors as much as you can… The ideal thing would be to embrace the error, and, once you find out that you made it, don’t try to repress it or move on quickly. Learn from it and invest time in it, and it will pay off.”

Kornell also emphasized that the best way to learn from an error is to examine it and come up with a solution on your own. That way, you are much more likely to retain the knowledge you’ve gained. If an editor simply keeps telling you to ask people to spell people’s names when you interview them, you might not remember to do so. But if you ask three colleagues how they handle names, and they all say “Ask people to spell their name at the start of the interview,” then you’re more likely to remember to do that.

“When somebody has to generate the information or do a task themselves, they learn more than if they were presented with the information and just passively read or observed it,” Kornell said. This dynamic helps explain why many reporters can recall details from stories they researched years or decades in the past — it’s because they engaged in a powerful process of learning and discovery.

We need to create processes that encourage journalists to investigate why they make mistakes, and help them generate ideas and solutions. The news organization is responsible for providing the error data and presenting it in a way that encourages learning. But, ultimately, we’re all best served if we search out a solution by researching and asking questions. You know, by being journalists.

Correction of the Week

“On 29 March and 1 April last year we reported that Mr Patel was an evil terrorist who had been jailed for his part in a transatlantic jet terror plot. While he had been convicted under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act of possessing material that might be useful to terrorists, the court accepted that he unwittingly held documents for a friend of his father. Mr Patel has never had any involvement with terrorism acts. We are happy to set the record straight and apologise to him.” – The Sun (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.