The story behind ‘the best NYT correction ever’

An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children’s TV show “My Little Pony” that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.

Twilight Sparkle

New York Times corrections, December 30

I asked Amy Harmon, author of “Navigating Love and Autism,” about the correction that’s gone viral. Her story:

My little pony problem came to our attention through multiple channels. One was a call to the reader comment line, prompting the clerk who checks those messages to send this email to an editor who handles corrections:

–From the story “Navigating Love and Autism” by Amy Harmon, 12/26

On page 6 of the web version there is a “nerdy intellectual character” referenced from the My Little Pony TV series named Fluttershy. A reader seems quite convinced that the character Twilight Sparkle fits that description more so than Fluttershy.

That is all.

When I got the email, with a request to check it out, I had just spoken to the young woman in my story, Kirsten Lindsmith, about the mix-up. Kirsten did not formally request a correction — it came up as we debriefed on the broader response to the story. But the passage was clearly unsettling for someone with her penchant for both Ponies and accuracy. (In a way it looked like SHE had been confused, which I worried would cause other pony devotees in her online forums to give her grief.) I had also received email from a reader that was generally positive — he had autism too, and hoped to have a romantic life of his own, he said — but which pointed me to the Wiki pages for Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy. “I hope this will help you to understand,” he wrote.

Amy Harmon

Yes, I knew the correction was funny, on some level. We even tried, a little bit, to maximize its entertainment value in the way we worded it. The editor who helped me did predict that it would earn a place in the correction hall of fame. But I have to say I’ve been surprised at the extent of the reaction, especially the comments – well-meaning as they are — that imply we went above and beyond in making it. “Perhaps the reporter has undiagnosed Asperger’s,’’ someone wrote in a Facebook comment forwarded to me by an amused friend.

The Times’ rule is, we correct anything that is wrong, no matter how small or seemingly silly. And I don’t know any of my colleagues who would want to do differently. I hate to get any detail wrong, and when I do, I often have a moment of fantasizing about just letting it slip. But as I sat there that morning, kicking myself for a relatively small mistake that marred a story I had poured my heart into, it seemed so much worse to let it stand. Not correcting it would have undermined the credibility of the other 5,011 words of the story – at least for “My Little Pony” fans. And I think we have seen now that they are not an obsessive subculture to be taken lightly.

Another part of the Times’ corrections policy, which arose after the awfulness of Jayson Blair, is that each correction is entered in a tracking system that includes who was responsible, and an explanation of how the error came to be.

So in case you were wondering, it was my fault, and this is what happened:

Fluttershy

I was accompanying Kirsten to school, taking notes on my laptop as she drove. She was listening to music on her iPod known to Pony fans as “dubtrot,” — a take-off on “dubstep,’’ get it? – in which fans remix songs and dialogue from the show with electronic dance music. Anyway. The song features Fluttershy exclaiming “yay,’’ which I wrote down. Then Kirsten told me that in the Pony universe, the seasons do not change on their own. She talked animatedly about one episode in which the ponies do “winter wrap-up,’’ bringing back the birds that had migrated, clearing away the clouds.

I remember thinking the manual season-changing was a metaphor for people with autism, for whom the social interactions that come naturally to many of us have to be consciously learned. (This seemed way too tortured when it came time to write.) Twilight Sparkle had a big role in that episode, and it was then that our conversation then shifted to her nerdy intellectual personality. But I never wrote down her name. I did run the sentence I ended up with by Kirsten, but it was one of a million things I was checking with her over the course of several drafts, largely by email. I failed to adequately flag it, and she was understandably focused on the other details, many of them deeply personal, that she was choosing to share.

I truly regret the error.

Amy

* The best New York Times correction ever





Comments

comments

25 comments
  1. Another inaccurate statement, however — it is NOT the Times’ rule to correct any error, no matter how small or silly. I’ve requested corrections at least twice on clear, flat-out inaccuracies. In one case I pushed it until a Times editor explicitly e-mailed me saying they would not correct it. The Times will correct it if they get your middle initial wrong, but refuses to correct substantive errors that would challenge the validity of the premise of a story.

  2. KR said:

    This isn’t the best NYT correction, anyway. A few months ago, an interview with Mets player R.A. Dickey mentioned that he named one of his bats “Orcrist the Goblin Cleaver”, after what the article said was “Bilbo Baggins’ sword in The Hobbit”. Obviously(!) Orcrist was Thorin Oakenshield’s sword, not Bilbo’s, and sure enough, the NYT printed a correction later.

  3. Kaitlin said:

    This is beautiful!! I just love the ideas of inspirational and true stories :)

  4. “So in case you were wondering, it was my fault, and this is what happened:”

    After reading this, I really, really like Amy Harmon.

  5. WL said:

    Ironically, the picture of Fluttershy featured here is an inaccurate fan art. Fluttershy looks like this.

  6. PoniesnoExceptions said:

    @WL

    Just because it doesn’t look exactly like the one on the show doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. Lots of diversity in fanart. As long as she’s a pony and wings it’s accurate.

    I’m very impressed the NY Times would go this far for the sake of accuracy and I hope after all this hoopla you guys will do a Brony/MLP story in the future. Cheers.

  7. Sam said:

    Actually, the best NY Times correction ever is the following:

    “October 21, 1998, Wednesday An obituary on Oct. 7 of Robert Allen, an actor who played the original Texas Ranger in 1930’s westerns, misstated several aspects of his career. Mr. Allen was never nominated for an Academy Award. He appeared in supporting and not principal roles in Broadway productions of ”Show Boat,” ”Auntie Mame” and ”Kiss Them for Me.” He appeared in a revival of ”Show Boat,” not the original production. And neither the Walt Disney Company nor the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could confirm the existence of a film called ”Brimstone, the Amish Horse,” in which Mr. Allen’s family said he appeared.”

    My husband and I became hysterically obsessed with the idea of Brimstone, the Amish Horse, even going so far as to write a brief script for a trailer for the movie, including a theme song (set to the tune of Caspar the Friendly Ghost). In our version, Brimstone was a drug-sniffing horse who routed out corruption in Lancaster County, and his best friend was Hellfire, the Amish Cow.

    But most amazing? When I became fascinated with this MLP correction, and started chatting about it and the Brimstone correction on FB, my husband had a hunch that more info might be available (now that it’s 2012 rather than 1998, and the internet is far broader), and sure enough, found out that “Brimstone, the Amish Horse” movie was REAL, made for the TV series, “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” So the question is: Will the NY Times print a correction of a fourteen-year-old erroneous correction?

  8. I now feel like the laziest journalist on the planet.

  9. John said:

    This is a wonderful correction, but allow me to put forth another contestant for the title of best correction:
    In 1920 the Times published an editorial ridiculing Robert Goddard’s claims that a rocket could function in a vacuum and reach the moon. In 1969, three days before the first moonwalk, the Times published a correction: “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

  10. Eric said:

    This correction makes the Times 20% Cooler. I loved the article Amy (Very mild Aspie and a Brony here) and this correction just makes it better.

    Cheers!
    -Eric

  11. Bob Collins:
    I had the same thought.

  12. Mark Potts said:

    I was always fond of a New York Times correction in the late ’70s that went something like, “In an illustration accompanying a story about the moon yesterday, a photo of the sun was used to illustrate the moon.”

  13. Andrew Jarvis said:

    Any error correctable by any one of a dozen websites available with a single Google search is unacceptable regardless of any cute vignette you might attach to it.

    The “coincidental” association of having autism and being a “brony” is also less than subtle…it makes NYT seem like a childish publication for aging conservative bullies who were probably not even 20 years ago tormenting gays and minorities.

    Sorry, but this is just…bad.

  14. Dexter Westbrook said:

    “Kirsten did not formally request a correction.”
    WTF does that mean? Either she let the writer know the information was wrong, or she didn’t. Since she thought the error was “unsettling,” I suspect it was clear to the reporter that she did want a correction.
    I also thought it was odd that she let a subject of the story read it before it was published.

  15. Owen Wells said:

    I imagine it means that even if she mentioned to the reporter that it was wrong she didnt go through whatever procedure the NYT has for reporting correction requests.

    Remember Amy mentioned that they track each individual correction and why it was entered so it isnt beyond the realms of possbility for them to have something like that for readers requesting corrections as well.

  16. Amy Harmon said:

    Thanks so much for these comments. I esp love the ones about OTHER corrections ;-)

    To Andrew: I honestly have no idea what you mean so I can’t respond to your comment. But feel free to email me at amy@nytimes.com if you want to clarify.

    To Dexter: sometimes when the subject of a story feels the reporter has made an error, he or she writes or calls in a formal complaint to the contact information listed on A2 of the paper: (nytnews@nytimes.com, 1-888-NYT-NEWS) or contacts the paper’s Public Editor (public@nytimes.com or (212) 556-7652). As Owen suggests above, each instance of these is recorded and followed up on. I meant that Kirsten did not file a formal complaint like that. I also meant that in our conversation, she indicated that she knew the Fluttershy/Twilight mix-up seemed relatively trivial, and did not say in so many words “I demand a correction!” But you are absolutely right that simply alerting me that I had gotten the name of the nerdy intellectual pony wrong should have been (and, as mentioned, was) enough to set the corrections process in motion.

  17. Total said:

    Any error correctable by any one of a dozen websites available with a single Google search is unacceptable regardless of any cute vignette you might attach to it.

    Dude, chill out. That’s why they’re called “errors.”

  18. Now THAT is journalism. What a wonderful story about fact checking and getting things right. Perhaps Jayson Blair has his uses after all.

  19. Interesting tale. But the need for “labels” illustrated here is a problem. Even the diagnosis of autism is a complicated subject these days, but the real problem is the need for many of the other labels.

    This particular article skates past the edge of the trap, but most reporters take the “introvert/extrovert” definition well past their boundaries. Those are tendencies, not conditions.

  20. Interesting tale. But the need for “labels” illustrated here is a problem. Even the diagnosis of autism is a complicated subject these days, but the real problem is the need for many of the other labels.

    This particular article skates past the edge of the trap, but most reporters take the “introvert/extrovert” definitions well past their boundaries. Those are tendencies, not conditions.

  21. I love also that NYT correction, in the review of the book ‘Steve Jobs’ by Walter Isaacson:

    “Correction: October 26, 2011

    The Books of The Times review on Saturday, about “Steve Jobs,” by Walter Isaacson, described “Angry Birds,” a popular iPhone game, incorrectly. Slingshots are used to launch birds to destroy pigs and their fortresses, not to shoot down the birds.”

    ^^

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/22/books/steve-jobs-by-walter-isaacson-review.html

  22. Don Lee said:

    Holier-than-thou Andrew:
    Don’t think there’s anyone here who regards an error as “acceptable,” hence the correction. However, I for one appreciated the humanity of the story, one that went beyond the grudging, lawyerly and soulless correction that is the staple of those journalism organizations that bother to do them. Get over yourself, buddy. Amy: Thanks for being human.

  23. Sarah Hoffman said:

    The correction that went viral brought me to the story in the first place. However, I began reading the story and quickly forgot about the correction.

    I thought this was a beautifully told story in print and visually.

    Amy, thanks for sharing some of your personal experiences with Kirsten.

  24. chris said:

    I don’t think the Times understands Asperger syndrome. Many MANY people with Asperger’s have ABOVE AVERAGE INTELLIGENCE. People with Asperger’s tend to focus on a SPECIFIC topic, and they can EXCEL above everybody else in terms of knowledge on a subject since they spend SO MUCH TIME on it. The Times is writing like a person with Asperger’s is more likely to be confused on a subject, which is actually the opposite of true. Just think about your ‘job’. You get better at your job the more time you spend on it.

  25. I felt a pang of recognition reading the correction. Several years back, in a story mentioning the VeggieTales phenom, I confused the identities of the two animated stars, a cucumber and a tomato. A mom wrote in with such venom, you would have thought I’d pitched rotten veggies at her tot. We ran a correction that still makes me shudder.