As the scandal surrounding Gen. David Petraeus widens, new facts seem to be pouring in by the minute. But as media outlets scramble to collect and report on the details, one of the most basic facts about the case is frequently being misreported: the spelling of the general’s last name.
A quick Google search of variations on the name found that no fewer than three different spellings of Petraeus are routinely turning up in mainstream news reports, as reporters, unprotected by spell check, pump out new stories.
While one assumes that some of these missteps will be corrected in time, they were common as of Tuesday morning -- three days after news broke that the CIA director had resigned in the wake of an affair with his biographer.
This has been the most common error, as it’s easy to flip the “ae” combination. The most recent example comes up in the Los Angeles Times, which ran the headline, “Petreaus cultivated the media, and they treated him gently,” early Tuesday morning. The name was spelled correctly throughout the rest of the piece.
Other examples include ABC News (at least three times, but two corrected), NBC News, the Washington Times, the National Journal, the Pittsburg Morning Sun and Britain’s Daily Mail (later corrected in headline but not the body).
Not quite as common, but still prevalent. Clint Henderson’s Fox News blog post on Nov. 13 is the most glaring, with “Patraeus” right in the lead. Other examples include the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Salon and ABC’s News 10 in Sacramento, Calif. (“Patraeus” in the headline, followed by a correctly spelled AP story).
Name misspellings are actually among the most common mistakes that journalists make. According to Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore, name-related errors accounted for some 16 percent of all the corrections made by the New York Times in 2011.
“It’s so easy to check the spelling of names -- especially those of famous people -- and yet we often fail to take this extra step as journalists,” she wrote in a May 21 blog post. “We forget to ask for the right spelling, we write the name from memory, we misread our handwritten notes, we’re misled by incorrect sources online, or we assume a name is spelled the ‘normal way.’”
So how does IBTimes stack up in the great Petraeus spelling scandal? A search of the website Tuesday morning via Google revealed three instances of “Petreaus” and one of “Patreaus.”
The phrase “add to dictionary” comes to mind. In the meantime, Google can act as a quasi spell checker: the misspellings have not affected Google search's autocomplete function, which offers the correct spelling -- for now.