NY Times silently corrects major scientific gaffe in story [UPDATED]

| May 24, 2008

[UPDATE (05/26/08): See end of post for the response from the New York Times. Also note that there is now a correction note in place at the end of the article. On the other hand, I haven’t been able to find any news about Fournier actually making the jump yesterday.]

This morning (Saturday, 5/24), the New York Times published a story by Matt Higgins about Michael Fournier’s planned attempt at a 25-mile parachute jump tomorrow (Sunday, 5/25). As originally published, the story contained this major scientific error (emphasis mine):

He intends to climb into the pressurized gondola of the 650-foot balloon, which resembles a giant jellyfish, and make a two-hour journey to 130,000 feet. At that altitude, almost 25 miles up, Fournier will see both the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. He will experience weightlessness.

Then he plans to step out of the capsule, wearing only a special space suit and a parachute, and plunge down in a mere 15 minutes.

Of course, Fournier will not experience weightlessness in his capsule; instead, he’ll experience about 99% of his regular weight. If he were in fact weightless, then he wouldn’t fall when he stepped out of his capsule. I captured a screen shot of the article; you can pull it up here.

This evening, I checked again and — as I suspected might happen — found that the article had been silently corrected (with no notice of the original error) to now read as follows:

He intends to climb into the pressurized gondola of the 650-foot balloon, which resembles a giant jellyfish, and make a two-hour journey to 130,000 feet. At that altitude, almost 25 miles up, Fournier will see both the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth.

Then he plans to step out of the capsule, wearing only a special space suit and a parachute, and plunge in a mere 15 minutes, experiencing weightlessness along the way.

I read through the entire article and could find no acknowledgment of the original error. Here’s a screenshot of the corrected passage and here’s a screenshot of the end of the corrected article (showing no indication of the earlier error).

[UPDATE: 05/26/08]

I sent a link of this post to Craig Silverman at Regret the Error as well as directly to the NY Times Public Editor. Craig also wrote to the NY Times Public Editor, which seems to have gotten more response than my own e-mail. Here’s the personal response I got from Greg Brock, Senior Editor at the NY Times:

Craig Silverman passed along your posting about our change in the Sports article today. After we heard from about three dozen readers, we reached the reporter as soon as we could. Then a Sports editor I had talked to updated the article online — as has been our policy for sometime now.

Unfortunately, the editor forgot to give the Web editors an italic line to put at the bottom of the article acknowledging that it had been corrected. We have been using these italic lines rather than waiting for a print correction to run and then belatedly appending it to the online article. That sometimes takes days. (Certainly on a long holiday weekend.) In this case, alas, one of our human beings actually screwed up. Imagine that? If only we could make everything automated we wouldn’t have to be running around in circles on things like this. (Of course, we wouldn’t have a job that kept us running in circles either.)

We have had a long-standing policy at The Times of acknowleding our errors and correcting them. After all, we publish almost 4,000 corrections a year. This policy, of course, also applies to articles online — whether the article was originally in the print editions or was written just for the Web site.

Anytime you see something like this and are puzzled, feel free to drop me a line and ask. Readers ask us about these things all the time; we are always grateful when they call it to our attention. There’s usually a simple explanation for it . We really aren’t as conspiratorial and sinister as some folks think We just screw up. And boy are we good at it.

Best regards,

Greg Brock
Senior Editor

Fair enough. For the record, I didn’t think there was anything ‘conspiratorial or sinister’ about the silent correction; I just figured they were embarrassed, and I was mostly amused. ..bruce w..
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Category: Journalism, Main, Science, Space

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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