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.
— 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.
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:
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.
* The best New York Times correction ever