I realize that I haven’t been back in a while, and while I apologize, there is a new and thought provocative subject to discuss. I was asked in our recent Copy Editing class what should be done about corrections if one is in charge of a major media operation/organization. So here are some of my candid thoughts on the subject, along with links to some of the information that is out there:
1. Never “scrub” away a mistake without acknowledging that the mistake has been made. This is sound advice, and it comes from the article handed out in class by Sue Burzynski Bullard, entitled “Regret the error, but who admits it?” (American Copy Editors Society).
2. It also occurred to me that there should be more websites like “Regret the Error” (http://www.regrettheerror.com/) to hold newspapers accountable for their mistakes and also to facilitate a discussion about how to prevent discrepancies in factual information. An important discussion on this subject took place on Media Ethics online if you would like to check it out. (Authors: Michael Bugeja and Jane Peterson)
3. Correcting archived information can be a gray area. Please consult your individual editor before correcting or changing any information. USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review published an article by Mark Thompson where the author discusses how delicate even changing a last name for a list of academic accomplishments can be.
4. Always confirm every piece of information that is going into a story with your byline on it. It is your credibility on the line, no matter how minute you think that the detail is. This rule was included as part of a sample of the Chicago Tribune’s corrections policy on the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review.
5. As for the online realm, there was an interesting tidbit written about how ESPN is handling some of the corrections that need to be made in online articles. The comments were made by Patrick Stiegman, vice-president and editor of ESPN.com.
“The amount of content that was being produced was outpacing the copy editing resources behind it.” – This means that we should always strive to have many members of staff not only monitoring the regular activity of the actual newspaper, but also online activity as well. (This especially means articles written exclusively for that purpose.)
6. Involve the readers. Provide more ways to get in touch with staff if the audience does spot an error. According to the Columbia Journalism Review (Craig Silverman), 21 out of 28 newspapers in the Bay area alone do not offer correction links to their audience. Seventeen of the 28 “don’t have a corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.” This is a contained area of the country everyone. Think of how widespread this problem actually is.
7. The whole staff should be called together if there is a serious error to be found. Pointing the finger should not be the first response, but the staff should discuss how the error happened. At this point, discipline should be given if found to be necessary. This is similar to what the Denver Post discussed in their Ethics Policy under Errors/Corrections.
8. Always be quick to correct any mistake that has been found.
“The Post’s internal policies say that when readers point out mistakes, the response should be “prompt”. But too often, reporters and editors move at a snail’s pace to correct errors,” said Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for the Washington Post, as printed on the newspaper’s website.
9. Already existing written policies need to be enforced. There was an interesting New York Times piece (Arthur S. Brisbane) that I came across that addressed the issue of an Op-Ed mistake made by columnist Frank Rich that had to be fixed by Gail Collins, editor of the editorial page of the NYT. (Collins, by the way, went about fixing the mistake in the manner to which the situation needs to be addressed at all publications.)
10. Even if a source is attributed, that doesn’t free the reporter from liability if that information turns out to be incorrect. (This goes back to always being able to confirm found information with other sources. Check with your publication for their specific policy.)
More information on this rule can be found at the website of the Poynter Institute in an article by Bill Mitchell under the section, “Attribution and Sourcing”.
This about concludes my run-down on what needs to be done with a newspaper’s corrections policy in order to make it an effective machine. I welcome any comments, suggestions, or even additions.