Blog by Toby Welch

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Factually Correct

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.