The mere thought of making mistakes gnaws at me, jolting me awake in the middle of the night with the heebie-jeebies and cold sweats. It always has.
Did I spell that Little League shortstop’s name correctly?
Did I accurately tally the number of rushing yards that high school running back accumulated last night? Was it 103 yards or the 98 yards I reported?
Was my math right when I totaled the rainfall Fort Myers received in January?
So many facts. So many names. So many chances to get something wrong. The smallest error will, of course, throw everything else in a story into dispute.
In the 41 years since I first wrote a story for a newspaper I quite likely have reported millions of details. Vote totals. An author’s hometown. The name of an obscure disease or city in Mongolia. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes along the way.
How could I not? I’m human. Well, sort of.
I bring this up now because of a mistake I recently made that really bothered me. Well, they all do. For now, I’m just mentioning this one mistake.
It was in a roughly 23,000-word history of the Lee Memorial Health System I finished writing earlier this year for the system. The project will be published soon, well before the hospital’s 100th birthday on Oct. 3.
I was honored to receive the assignment and enjoyed digging through archives around town and reading old newspapers on microfilm.
One of the details my research uncovered was the first operation in the hospital’s history, which was performed 100 years ago by a Dr. Daniel McSwain. I wrote it as Dr. David McSwain.
I caught it in time but so did the health system’s crackerjack communications department.
How could I get something so basic as a first name so wrong? When I first realized the mistake, I was mortified and alerted the communications department, which had already changed David to Daniel.
But I told myself I didn’t conjure David out of thin air. I knew I had come across historical references to the doctor’s first name as David.
I plowed through my stack of research files. Ah, there it is. In 1984, a history of the hospital was published in a Tampa historical magazine. The writer of that history referred to Dr. McSwain as David. I picked up on her mistake and was keeping it alive, 32 years later.
That’s how errors live on in publications. A mistake in a 1984 magazine or a 1954 newspaper is filed away in a library or archive and then in 2016 or 2026 a writer digs up the old story and repeats the error.
This time it was caught.
What about next time?
And there will be a next time.
Yep, that thought continues giving me the heebie-jeebies and cold sweats in the middle of the night.