Correcting errors in online journalism

A recent report on the ABC’s Media Watch program about the reporting around Julia Gillard’s latest battles with the media got me thinking about how journalists go about correcting errors they may have made in their stories.

In this instance, the Australian made (in the print versions of their publication) “minor errors with major consequences,” according to Media Watch.  To correct them, they published two online statements acknowledging the mistakes had been made.  However, I notice that the corrections go no further than merely stating that certain claims were “wrong” and “are untrue”.

But in the online world, where the news moves so fast and stories are constantly updated, wouldn’t it be easier (and is there a temptation to) simply delete/ fix errors, sweep them under the carpet and pretend they never happened?

Common errors

While I think all journalists try their best to avoid errors, it’s probably unavoidable that some slip in from time to time.

According to Mallary Tenore, from the Poynter Institute, misspelled names are the most common errors.  For example, of the 56 corrections Poynter had run this year (as of May 12, 2012), 16% were apparently name misspellings.  The article quotes similar statistics for other news sources (e.g.  16% for the New York Times and 14% for the Los Angeles Times)

Corrections also need to be run for any incorrect assertions or misquotes, according to another Poynter Institute writer, Craig Silverman.  Silverman runs the Poynter Institute’s Regret the Error page(s), which “tracks accuracy, errors & the craft of verification”.  It’s well worth checking out (and isn’t limited to American news).

At the end of the day, no matter what the error is, I think it’s vital that journalists try to correct them as soon as possible.  Otherwise, how can we claim to be a credible, trustworthy source?

Transparent correction

But what is the best way to correct errors journalists may have made?  Unsurprisingly, deleting errors and pretending they didn’t happen isn’t the best way to go about it.

Rudy Lee, from the Ryerson Review of Journalism, says a good corrections policy starts “with the understanding mistakes are inevitable,” and that transparency is the key.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has outlined some best practices in digital accuracy and correction.  In particular, they have three core principles that I think any online journalist would do well to remember.  I’ll briefly repeat them below:

1. “Published digital content is part of the historical record and should not be unpublished.  News organisations do not rewrite history or make news disappear.”

2. “Accuracy is the foundation of media credibility…. we should resist unpublishing… we should publish corrections or update online articles as soon as we verify errors.”

3. “Transparency demands that we are clear with audiences about changes that have been made to correct/ amend or update digital content.  We should not “scrub” digital content, that is, simply fix it and hope that no one has noticed.”

The best way (and probably most logical way) to do this is to have a dedicated corrections page for each news organisation.  According to all the sources mentioned so far, this will help maintain credibility as journalists acknowledge their mistakes and, in doing so, assure readers that they are committed to accuracy.

For example, both the BBC and the ABC have their own dedicated corrections pages (both of which can be found by a quick Google search).  A quick glance at the page(s) allows a reader to see a complete history of all corrections that have been made (and importantly, an explanation of what is was wrong, not just “it was incorrect”).

Many news organisations also insert a note into a story, either at the beginning or end, to inform the reader that corrections have been made.

I particularly like the way the Columbia Journalism Review handles their corrections.  Not only do they have a dedicated corrections page, but they also put a strike through the original error, with the correction immediately following.  I quite like this, as I think it makes it very, very clear to the reader exactly what information has been changed (and they can see the changes visually at a glance, without needing to compare an old and new version of the story).  Finally, they also include a “Report an Error” button at the end of every article.  This will make it even easier for news organisations to have errors brought to their attention, as helping reader report errors makes them all into fact checkers (according to the Canadian Association of Journalists).

Unfortunately, not every news organisation seems as open.  I had a look around the Courier Mail’s website and was unable to find a corrections page, or even any clear instructions/ guidance about what to do if a reader finds an error.  If anyone else is able to find such a page, please let me know and I’ll correct this.  Knowing my technological skills, I might have missed it.

In summary, I guess there are three keys things I need to remember:

1. Mistakes happen, but don’t just delete them

2. Be open and transparent about errors and corrections (and try to fix them quickly)

3. Make it easy for readers to find corrections that have been made (and easy for them    to get in touch about mistakes you’ve yet to find)

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