That's not to say I've never written an article that included disputable facts or statements that might be seen as sweeping, presumptuous, or even inaccurate. But I've never been called on it. (In fact, in a few cases I've actually called editors before the article has run, informing them of an error. Often these realizations come to me in dreamland or in the wee hours of waking-ness... but thats another post.)
No, when I got a message with the subject FW: possible error -- and filled with messages from colleagues and supervisors tracking back from the weekend when some irate reader had called the newsroom to complain -- it was a first, most humbling experience.
The error came from some hasty research I did on HER2-positive breast cancer tumours, and the survival -- I mean recurrence -- rates of the women they affect. Yes, I switched up the terms survival and recurrence, which is especially bad because the whole article was about a website aiming to dispel the 'death sentence' reputation of HER2 breast cancer... and survival rates and recurrence rates are sort of like opposites. A low recurrence rate is good -- a low survival rate is bad.
In my defence, the study did compare these two rates. As reported in Science Daily:
"Our findings show that women with early stage HER2 positive breast cancer have a 23 percent chance of recurrence. In contrast, the five-year survival rate of all women with such early-stage breast cancer is more than 90 percent."
This made the correction tough to write, because I couldn't compare apples to apples. But I got some help from my editor, a few harsh words from a managing editor, and came up with this
And because I'm ever the optimist, I'd like to add on a positive note: at least people are really reading. The experience definitely connected me to my readership and, of course, humbled and warned me -- especially as I continue down the heath beat.