Mistakes happen, but how do we tell the readers?
When the NFL opened its season in early September, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning grabbed much of the attention when he guided his team to a win over Baltimore by throwing a record-tying seven touchdown passes.
The next day, though, it was the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch that captured headlines over its own headline about the game. In its early print editions, the Dispatch’s page C3 headline said Elway – as in 53-year-old Hall of Fame, long-since retired, former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway – had thrown those game-winning scores.
Media across the country jumped on the error, which the Dispatch also inserted into the wire services story that ran above the fold Sept. 6. A photo of the incorrect headline made its way onto other media websites and became part of lengthy discussions on sports talk shows across the country.
Dispatch assistant sports editor Brian Hofmann said on Twitter, “It’s a bad morning watching your paper’s mistake go viral.”
No doubt it was, just as that sinking feeling of, “Oh, no!” strikes in all newsrooms when a mistake works its way into publication. While the feeling might be common, how the Dispatch handled it diverges greatly compared to how many other newspapers treat errors.
Online that day and in the next day’s print edition, the Dispatch acknowledged and apologized for the error. Not that it had a choice, given the attention drawn to the mistake. For the Dispatch, though, the practice to openly deal with corrections stands up whether for a national-attention-drawing mistake or something as simple as the wrong date on an event.
Page 2 standard left behind
A survey of 80 newspapers in the 16-state Gateway Journalism Review coverage area found that corrections are difficult to find. A search of websites showed 32 of the newspapers had corrections in August; the other newspapers, if they run the corrections, make them nearly impossible to find. Only one newspaper includes corrections as a permanent topic header.
As newspapers evolve more toward online rather than print editions, the once-standard practice of Page 2 corrections has been left behind. No longer do readers have either a regular place to view corrections or a clear method on how to report an error. Only 12 of the 80 newspapers had a designated standards person or an online form for submitting corrections.
That newspapers will make mistakes is a given, although most newspapers surveyed have yet to run a single locally generated correction this year. As the late Washington Post political columnist David Broder said during his 1973 speech upon accepting the Pulitzer Prize, “I would like to see us say – over and over, until the point has been made – that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours. … But it’s the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected and updated version.”
That sentiment and promise showed up in the 1690 newspaper “Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick” published by Benjamin Harris. In his one and only edition of the newspaper on Sept. 25 – making the first time a newspaper was printed in what would 100 years later be known as the United States – Harris wrote, “Nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.”
Over the next centuries, newspapers followed that rule with varying styles, sometimes following different formats in the same newspaper. Credit for setting a consistent method to handle corrections goes to former New York Times executive editor Abraham Rosenthal. In 1972 he standardized how corrections would be printed in each issue, designating Page 2 as where corrections would run.
Newspapers across the country picked up on this idea. Readers soon learned to go to Page 2 to see corrections and the newspaper’s policy, and to find contact information for submitting notice that an error had been made.
In recent years, as newspapers have trended toward more online publishing, that Page 2 standard has lagged – if not been left behind completely. In the ongoing migration from print to online, corrections have failed to make the jump to most websites.
Just as in the pre-Rosenthal method days, the practice varies greatly – when it is followed at all. Some newspapers merely change the wrong information in an online story update without acknowledging there was an error.
Others put a note on the article explaining a previous error has been fixed. Some run corrections separately as part of their online news stream.
Since 2004, journalist Craig Silverman has viewed thousands of corrections for his blog “Regret the Error” – which, in December 2011, became part of the Poynter Institute. He recently was the winner of a Mirror award given by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications for best commentary in media industry reporting.
Silverman points to the long tradition of corrections starting with Harris and including Rosenthal’s contributions as ways newspapers have built credibility.
“A survey done in 1998 by the ASNE found that more than 60 percent of newspaper readers felt better about the quality of news coverage when they saw corrections,” Silverman said. “It also found that 78 percent of people who see corrections of errors they’ve noticed feel better about the newspaper.”
His media commentary over the past several years repeatedly has stated that the online versions of newspapers are losing credibility as they ignore the need for a corrections format on their websites.
“Online is not the same kind of ordered universe that newspapers were in the 1970s,” Silverman said. “Standards and leaders are still emerging. Readers know that journalists make mistakes. As a result, the absence of corrections won’t fool anyone; rather, it’s more likely to make readers suspicious and less willing to trust a news outlet.”
Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of MediaBugs – an online site that helps readers get media errors corrected – founded the Report an Error Alliance. Its 130 members include the Missourian, the University of Missouri’s newspaper produced by its School of Journalism. Members who join endorse the idea of a “report an error” link on media websites.
Having a dedicated link tells readers accuracy is the priority.
“That page should be updated at least daily, if not as it happens,” Silverman said. “Corrections should also be placed on the offending content as well, to ensure future readers see the disclosure. Too many news organizations will simply scrub away an error by editing the story and not also place a correction for the record.”
Of the 80 newspaper sites viewed, just one – the Jamestown Sun in North Dakota – keeps a consistent spot on its website for corrections. The Sun’s managing editor, Kathy Steiner, said the “Corrections” tab was created about five years ago and mirrors corrections that run in the daily newspaper.
“The corrections in the print edition run on Page A3, in the same specific place,” Steiner said. “Errors are to be corrected if they occur, and promptly. That is what maintains credibility. By not correcting an error that comes to our attention, we lose credibility.”
Readers can go to the Sun’s website and view under the “Corrections” tab the 269 corrections dating back to Jan. 30, 2008. That feature, while it provides transparency and is what the Report the Error Alliance recommends, is being dropped. Steiner said that in the near future, when the website is updated, there no longer will be a specific subcategory for corrections.
The Chicago Tribune provides the easiest method to submit corrections, and the easiest method for readers to find them. The website’s “Contact Us” information provides a specific link for reporting an error.
Clicking on that takes the reader to a detailed form to submit the information. It asks what type of error was made (whether in a story, graphic, caption or video) and asks for details, such as when it ran, under what headline and under what byline. It also includes a telephone number to call if that is a preferred contact method.
As well, when a reader clicks on the contact information, the 10 most recent corrections to have run appear. Later ones appear in the online archives.
Tribune standards editor Margaret Holt said this policy continues a wide-reaching accuracy program started in 1991, when the then-public editor’s office was established and the newsroom began a varied process of tracking and analyzing mistakes.
“We moved further in 1996, when we adopted an accuracy form in which we asked staffers to explain mistakes,’’ Holt said. “We made it part of the culture. For some years a newsroom goal was to improve the quality of work. That is very different from telling people we want to reduce the number of corrections. If you do that, people will just quit telling you about mistakes; the number of corrections will drop, to be sure, but it would be delusional to conclude that the quality of work has improved.”
When the newspaper moved to digital printing, Holt and Bill Adee, senior vice president for digital, worked to have the accuracy and ethics values follow.
“Bill and the other masthead editors view the Chicago Tribune as one newsroom; people are producing work for print and digital editions all the time,” Holt said. “We say in our ethics code that we expect the same high standards across all our publishing platforms.”
The online form feeds to the reader help desk, similar to how print readers follow directions for corrections through the Page 2 instructions. They all then find their way to Holt.
“I work directly with the reporters and editors to determine if there is an error,” she said. “Our bias is to fix mistakes, no matter how small, as quickly as possible.”
A commitment to honesty
Even with all that transparency, the Tribune took extra steps regarding a Page 1 story July 21 about a blind man and his guide dog. In the story, the man said he lost his sight while serving in the Gulf War. The story contained a five-paragraph description of the explosion he said resulted in his blindness.
A reader contacted the paper with concerns on the accuracy of the description of the explosion. The paper then checked Army records and questioned the man. He admitted he had not been blinded in an explosion, was not a veteran and had lost his sight because of diabetes.
The Tribune’s “Note to Readers” – labeled as such rather than as a correction – said the inaccurate information came from the man in the story. It stated the paper “failed to seek corroboration for his story.” The note details what the man said in follow-up interviews. It ended with the Tribune saying it is taking steps to correct lapses in corroborating facts in its reporting and apologized to readers.
Holt said it was clear the story called for a larger explanation.
“It merited further explanation, and we provided it,” she said. “As former Chicago Mayor (Richard) Daley was fond of saying, ‘Simple as that.’ ”
Silverman said running corrections, contrary to what newspapers fear, actually builds credibility with readers, according to the 1998 ASNE survey.
“It upholds our commitment to be honest and transparent about the mistakes we make,” he said. “Corrections are a good thing. Readers expect them. By not publishing and promoting corrections online, newspapers and other journalism organizations are not upholding one of the basic responsibilities we have.”
For newspapers concerned about transparency regarding errors on their websites, four areas should be addressed:
• Designate a person to receive the information. Under the “Contact Us” information, provide a specific person for readers to contact for submission of errors. Without a specific person designated, readers (remember, they are likely already angry at the paper) might believe their request falls into the online equivalent of the “circular file.” The contact information should include an email and a telephone number. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides contact information for correcting high school sports errors – a nice touch, as sports departments frequently have irate parents calling to correct statistics.
• Make it reader-friendly and easy to use. The Chicago Tribune provides one of the best forms for doing so. It begins with a blank space for the person to explain the error. It then asks if it was seen online or in print (a tweak of the software here would allow for someone to choose both) and, if seen online, asks the person to provide the link. The form asks on what date the error was seen, and if it was in a story, photo caption, video or graphic. It then asks for the headline and the byline that accompanied the mistake. The submitter’s name, email, city, state and telephone number are requested. To better verify the submitter’s information, an area could be added to ask the person how he or she is aware of the error (i.e., “Were you a source in the story?” or “How are you familiar with the content published?”).
• Set up a “Corrections” page on the website. This will allow a permanent place of record for readers to see new and archived corrections. Placing a correction as a separate item on the website’s “river flow” of stories, along with all other updates, allows the paper (or perhaps the person making the mistake) to make the flow move faster by updating a story several times. This bumps the correction far enough downriver to become lost to readers. Make all corrections, regardless of when they ran, available for free. Run corrections both as separate items and tagged onto the original story.
• Include with all of this a clear policy explaining how the newspaper will handle submissions of error. Include details. Will all submissions warrant a response by the contact person, even if no error is found to correct? (They should.) Will corrections be printed only on errors of fact, or will clarifications also run? Will the policy include how the mistake was made, by whom, and how it came to the newspaper’s attention, such as from a reader? To further promote transparency, the policy should outline the internal process followed, from the receipt of a submitted form to the printed correction.