I used to have this rectangular, six-inch long pencil eraser with the words, “To Err Is Human,” printed on the top. It was a birthday present when I was a young girl. Since then, in my career as a writer, it would have come in handy more than a few times.
Writers write. When we write non-fiction in newspapers and magazines, we write what we know to be true, usually backed up by research and interviews. Writing is one thing. Publication is another thing entirely. Work that is published in print, online, via TV, or radio broadcast, will be consumed by the public. They will take in your words. It’s a heavy responsibility. What’s in print today may become the basis for someone’s dinner conversation tomorrow. Here’s where the immortal words of VIU Journalism instructor Richard Dunstan come in: “You have to hate being wrong.”
In the last issue of The Navigator, issue number 13, we printed some incorrect information. When this was discovered we immediately corrected the online version of the article, but the print paper is gone, it’s out there in the world. We deeply regret the error. We hate being wrong. But it happens in publications large and small. In the immortal words of my gigantic pencil eraser, “To Err Is Human.”
It’s not like we reported on a non-existent political sex scandal or false financial information that hurt stock prices. The consequences of our mistake don’t reach investors or Parliament Hill, but wrong is wrong, and wrong we were.
The victim of our error was the Western Toad. Some of the information in “Museum news” had the potential to undo the good work and public education around invasive amphibians. Two words largely synonymous in the outside world—toad and frog—it turns out, mean very different things in biology. They also mean very different things for the critters in question. When it comes to talk of being endangered, one amphibian roughing up another and trying to kick it out of the neighbourhood, the distinction is very important. We’re talking about the American Bullfrog and its relationship to the Western Toad. The non-native species is, in fact, the American Bullfrog, but we unfairly characterized the Western Toad as the invasive bully. The Western Toad is a perfectly lovely little native species that’s having some trouble keeping it together here. See, the American Bullfrog—an invasive species that was brought here to farm for its meaty legs—doesn’t play well with others, particularly amphibians that prefer its chosen habitat. The Western Toad is just one of the victims of the American Bullfrog’s brash advances, wrecking the place for its own purposes and making it really hard on the native species in the area. James MacKinnon brings us a special installment of “Museum news” in an effort to clear up the misunderstanding.
No journalist wants to be confronted with an error they’re responsible for—we work really hard to be right. We’ve seen a publication misspell “Vancouver” on their cover, and a headline announcing medical procedures on dead children, in another. For us, it was a bullfrog and a toad. We take this stuff seriously; it keeps us up at night reaching for the Pepto Bismal. But it does happen; to err is human, and we are all, if nothing more, human. As writers, we put ourselves out there, releasing a part of ourselves to the world in the words we craft. With that comes risk. Our ideas can be put on trial. Or our apostrophes.
This is the last issue of The Navigator of the year. I feel pretty grateful that we haven’t had to make a lot of written apologies and corrections. But our humanity prevails so we gather our strength and do it all over again. We correct our mistakes and move on, knowing that it probably isn’t the last time we’ll make a mistake in public, and hoping the next won’t be too humiliating. And today I stand, without excuses, and say to the Western Toad, “I am sorry. I will try to do better next time.”