Recently I received an email from a well-known professor who pointed out a factual error I had made in an article I posted online about loons. I’d stated that loons were related to penguins. The professor pointed out that that fact was “absolutely incorrect” and that the statement I made is as inaccurate as saying Polar Bears live in Antarctica. He continued in his email to say, “I'm sure as a journalist you strive to present reliable and correct information so that you have a good journalistic reputation.”
The professor is right; in everything I have ever written, I have been extra-diligent to make sure my facts are correct, sources are properly identified, and every word I have written is truthful to the best of my knowledge. The loon article had been written for a cottage magazine years ago and I’d republished it online relatively recently. I dug out my file with my notes from when I wrote the original article. I couldn’t find the source for my tidbit about loons being related to penguins, which meant I probably read it in a book I’d checked out from the library. I wasn’t about to spend hours hunting down where I’d originally found the information so I opted to deleted the sentence from my online article. I sent a nice note to the professor thanking him for pointing out my error since I do strive to be factually correct in everything I write.
I put the episode out of my mind until I received another email from the professor. Part of the message read:
I was teaching my Marine Birds course last night and while presenting material about loons, I referred to MY notes and guess what? My own notes say: “Loons are more related to penguins and tubenoses (eg. Petrels) than to grebes” …. !!! So excuse me you don’t need to change a thing … My mistake … and I was so adamant!
He went on to apologize and I was humbled when I read his email. He could have ignored his discovery in his notes and I would have been none the wiser. I sent him back a message thanking him. I did replace the factoid about the loon and penguin relation in my article.
This experience reminded me that not only do I need to be extra-vigilant fact checking my own writing but also to not take what other people have written as truth without triple checking it. The world abounds with misinformation.