Making an error in journalism is unfortunate, but it happens. For journalists and news outlets, when an error has occurred, the immediate concern will then be how to handle the correction.
Editor of the Regret the Error blog, which is now run on the Poynter Institute website, Craig Silverman has been blogging about the way news outlets have been handling errors and corrections for the past eight years.
He said that there remains "a lot of variety" in the way reports of errors are handled, processed within news outlets and corrected.
"I think for the public it would be a wonderful thing if there was a lot of clarity and sort of a standard that was widely used by the press in terms of how they encourage people to report mistakes, how they manage them and how they then push out corrections once they realise that they have in fact made an error."
However, he added that there does now seem to be what he identified as "a move towards perhaps a little bit more standardisation online".
"What I mean by that is that I am seeing more sites that are making sure that they add a correction to the online content when there is a mistake, seeing more sites where they do have at least somewhere on the site where they offer an email address or phone number of other means of contact for people who want to request corrections and then there are some that also have sort of a dedicated place on their website where those corrections are."
The Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, are doing so, but he added "by no means is that a wide standard".
"What I hope happens is that other news organisations see how there is sort of an emerging standard and start to move towards that."
In the feature below Silverman discusses his best practice advice in more detail, and we also take a look at approaches taken by the New York Times and Digital First Media, and advice from digital journalism experts within those news outlets on best practice.
Update: All three of the interviewees in this feature are from US outlets and therefore where UK publishers are dealing specifically with potentially libellous errors they would need to consider their approach in light of UK libel law. It is also worth noting that in the UK, the Press Complaints Commission does also sometimes deal with complaints relating to newspapers, magazines and their websites, although complainants are told by the PCC that they may also go direct to news outlets.
- Setting clear workflows for handling error reports
"So where do those error reports go, who's responsible for handling them and who makes a call on a correction?
"If I was to pinpoint one place where news organisations are often falling down, it's on that workflow because sometimes no one has responsibility so these correction requests may pile up and nobody knows they're there and nobody's willing to take a look at them.
"So if there's one thing that I think folks overlook it's that workflow. So create a workflow of where these requests come in, how they're handled, and how a correction ends up being created and then pushed out there and publicised."
At the New York Times senior editor for standards Greg Brock oversees the process, working along with his assistant and editors.
"We get so many queries and complaints, I couldn't do it all myself, plus those departments are the ones that are experts on the story that's being questioned," he told Journalism.co.uk.
The process at the New York Times starts with the error report being assessed by Brock and his assistant to "decide if there's merit to it", before they are then sent on for the attention of the relevant department. "Sometimes we have to turn it over to the research department, because we don't know the answer," he added.
If it is decided that there is an error then the first step is to correct it online, he said, with a note at the bottom of the article outlining the error and correction.
"We never change a factual error online without telling readers that we've done it," he said.
It is then up to the department editor to write the correction for the newspaper "which is a little more elaborate of course than the online version", which is then sent to Brock before being published on page two of the newspaper the next day. The page two corrections column is also posted on the website.
- When to post correction note
Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media thinks this should be whenever it constitutes "a significant factual error".
"If it changes the meaning I think it needs to be acknowledged. If it was just an obvious typo that didn't make sense without being fixed, I think you can just fix that, I don't think you need to acknowledge every single typo but anything that changes meaning or facts, I would err on the side of acknowledging.If it changes the meaning I think it needs to be acknowledged. If it was just an obvious typo that didn't make sense without being fixed, I think you can just fix thatSteve Buttry, Digital First Media
He added that "it's not enough to fix the mistake so the next person who sees it sees the correct version".
"We need to acknowledge that there was a mistake in earlier versions. That doesn't mean everybody's going to see the correction who saw the first error but that's always been the case."
Silverman also stands by the same standard. "If it is any kind of factual error, even if it's considered to be minor, you absolutely are going to add a correction to that article as well as fixing the mistake," he said.
"If it is a typo and that typo could potentially create confusion for the reader or that typo introduces a factual error then again I think you need to fix it and add a correction.
"Where I don't think you need to add a correction is if there is a small typo that doesn't really change the meaning of the sentence, that doesn't create a factual error, that doesn't create confusion for the reader, then I think it's okay to go in and just correct that typo."
He added that when the typo is a name of a person, or company, for example, he would add a correction "because there's a party that's been affected by that".
Overall Silverman recommends "erring on the side of adding a correction".
"One of the reasons for that is that's just good practice, just good disclosure, it's what people expect from us. But also, studies have found that people actually don't lose confidence when they see corrections; it actually helps build confidence because people know we screw up so we'd better be acknowledging it."Studies have found that people actually, they don't lose confidence when they see corrections it actually helps build confidence because people know we screw up so we'd better be acknowledging itCraig Silverman, Regret the Error
Echoing Silverman and Buttry's approaches, the New York Times would also not "acknowledge or post a correction for a typo", or grammatical error, Brock said.
"We reserve the corrections purely for errors of fact." He added that "the policy is you never change a fact in the article without appending the note".
When it comes to placement of the correction, Buttry and Silverman say that where possible it should be put at the top of the article, although Silverman notes that some news sites "append them to the bottom", such as the New York Times.
- The correction itself, and repeating the error
Digital First Media's Buttry said that in a number of newsrooms he has worked in there has been "a spoken rule ... that we don't repeat the error".
But he said he believes that newsrooms should be "acknowledging the correction, acknowledging the error and that the acknowledgement needs to say what the error was."
"I believe you should say what you originally said that was wrong, and say what's right".
He added that he also does not believe corrections should refer to "incorrect information provided by a source".
"We're responsible for the accuracy of our information. When sources give us information we should verify that information or if we just attribute it to them."
But he added that when it comes to errors made to the article during editing, and not due to the reporter with the byline, this should be made clear in the correction.
"I think if the error occurred in editing I think we should protect the reputation of the reporter, the person whose byline is on there, by saying this was an editing error, because credibility comes at multiple levels."I think if the error occurred in editing I think we should protect the reputation of the reporter, the person whose byline is on there, by saying this was an editing errorSteve Buttry, Digital First Media
Silverman also stressed the importance of clarity within corrections. "Too many of them are often really confusing or they're written in a way where they kind of try to dance around the mistake. Just be clear about it. And that's a better way to get that trust-enhancing value of a correction."
Brock added that he has also experienced the philosophy of "you don't want to repeat the error" in the past, but not at the New York Times.
"Some of the errors are quite serious so it's important to repeat the error and emphasise that that was not correct."Some of the errors are quite serious so it's important to repeat the error and emphasise that that was not correctGreg Brock, New York Times
Even in the case of potentially libelous content, as well as removing the content from the article, the Times "would still have the correction", he said.
"Let's just say we said someone was convicted of murder, and they had not been, I think the correction would say 'it is not the case that they were convicted of murder' or something. We would still re-state it in some way. But those you have to be very careful about."
As highlighted in the update at the start of this section, UK publishers considering their approach to this, such as when dealing with a potentially libellous error, would need to do so in light of UK libel law and may wish to seek legal advice first on the best approach.
- Dealing with errors in quotes
As well as running a correction, the question was how to amend the text in the article.
"Do you change the direct quotation from the person? We have a strict policy that we don't change quotations and the person did give the wrong year in this instance. So what we're going to do in that case is we're going to re-write the sentence and make it a paraphrased quotation, so that we don't have to use the part of the quotation where the person misspeaks and uses the wrong year."
- Monitoring corrections and using accuracy checklists
"So there are news organisations, [for example,] Toronto Star in Canada and the New York Times in the US, who actually maintain a database of the corrections that they issue so they can actually see 'oh, we really do have a problem with misspelling names and it's actually got worse over the last three months'. I think having the data is one way to start thinking about prevention."
The model at the New York Times was introduced in September 2007. Brock explains how it works.
"Everyday when a correction goes into the paper the computer sweeps through the archives and pulls out every correction of the day and it goes into a database and then all these editors who write the corrections daily fill out the form and explain what type of error it was.Everyday when a correction goes into the paper the computer sweeps through the archives and pulls out every correction of the day and it goes into a database and then all these editors who write the corrections daily fill out the form and explain what type of error it wasGreg Brock, New York Times
"There's an explanation box of how the error came to be, what we're doing to avoid it and then I am able to look across the newsroom. I know how many corrections we've run, I know how many misspelled names we have.
"I know if we're having problems with maths issues or percentages, if we're having issues with historical facts, if we're having issues with simply taking information offline without verifying it, because in the form it will ask you the source of the error and many times it will just be 'Googled', or 'checked a source'. So that's very helpful because the reason it exists is to see if we can pinpoint the types of errors."
This information can then be used to flag up any problems relating to a specific individual, he said.
"It's not to beat up on them, it's to help them to try to determine what's going on. And if they're young people it might just be a teaching moment, how to better fact check."
Silverman also calls for "a culture where the attitude is 'let's figure out a way to reduce these mistakes', rather than 'let's figure out a way to start punishing people and scaring people about making mistakes'".
One way to tackle common errors is to encourage journalists and editors to "create and use an accuracy checklist in their work", Silverman added.
Buttry added that "most newsrooms that I've been in have some sort of policy for documenting corrections and those sort of things".
"So if over time we find out 'okay, we're making lots of errors on names', we can address that either with training or with requirements of how you document that you spell the name and double check the name".
- Errors in live reporting: The importance of restraint
He said news outlets are still "trying to find the right balance in terms of being able to share and acknowledge the information that may be passing around, but also at the same time to sort of maintain some standard and some restraint about it so they're not in effect just helping spread misinformation".
While it remains "an emerging area", he had some advice for trying to avoid making errors in live reporting scenarios.
"Look at the information itself and ask, first of all, 'is there potential harm or danger, or are we potentially helping really spread misinformation if we put this out there yet?'Look at the information itself and ask, first of all, is there potential harm or danger, or are we potentially helping really spread misinformation if we put this out there yet?Craig Silverman, Regret the Error
"And I think a lot of the times if you actually just say 'you know what, we're going to wait five or 10 minutes, and maybe we're going to make these three phone calls or maybe we're going to contact these three people in other ways'. If you put that little bit of restraint or extra bit of checking in, that can often help.
"In terms of when you decide to put something out there and say 'listen, we're hearing reports about this, it is unconfirmed but we want a note for people who've heard it that it is unconfirmed', the key thing about that is to understand that you have a real responsibility to make it as clear as possible about what you don't know about this information and what the problems are, or the potential problems are with this information."
The issue that remains, however, is the lack of control you can then have on how this will be passed on by a third party, such as on Twitter.
"You can put unconfirmed in all caps in a tweet but somebody else could re-tweet that and decide to remove the word unconfirmed because it doesn't fit. And so you have to really be aware that especially on Twitter, when you put information out and you try to do the hedging and the flagging and all of these important things, understand that people may actually strip that out. And so in that sense I think a little bit of extra restraint is usually a good idea."
- Remembering a cross-platform approach
Silverman said this a part of the process "where people often fall down".
"If the error report comes in and it's focused saying 'hey, I read this in yesterday's paper and it's incorrect', there's often not this piece of workflow or the reminder there for people internally to say 'okay, we also have to get this online', and depending on the structure of the content management systems they may also have to go in and get a mobile version somewhere.
"So I think that's a very key piece of the workflow which is if you're publishing in a multiplatform way, then your workflow and your corrections policies and procedures also need to be thought about and implemented for a multiplatform world."If you're publishing in a multi-platform way, then your workflow and your corrections policies and procedures also need to be thought about and implemented for a multi-platform worldCraig Silverman, Regret the Error
At the New York Times the placement of a correction online for an article which also appeared in the newspaper "sets in motion automatically a print correction", Brock said.
And if reports of errors are made by readers on social media platforms or in the article comments, these are also passed to Brock.
"A lot of readers send in comments that cite an error in the story, but we don't post those comments because the moderators don't know if it's an error or not and you'd be surprised, many readers think there's an error and then there isn't."
Those comments are also flagged up to Brock and his assistant and they go through the same process.
- Issuing social media corrections
At the time Silverman outlined his recommended approach to issuing "networked" corrections, and the role of the journalist to not just put the correction out on all platforms the error was sent to, but to also actively encourage those who may have tweeted the original article to help circulate the correction also.
Buttry also recommended this approach, adding that while it is "impossible to un-ring the bell" journalists can "identify who else has re-rung the bell" and try and get their help in spreading the correction.
"If I make an error in a tweet and realise that, I can go back and delete the tweet so nobody sees the original one. I can send out another tweet with the correct information and a tweet acknowledging that I had it incorrect and saying what the error was, but we have an ability to track some of the people who have seen things.
"So I encourage, where you can't un-ring the bell you can identify who else has re-rung the bell, you can see who's retweeted you and I think you should direct message them or tweet at them saying 'hey, I hope you saw the correction, please, since you retweeted the original, send this along'.
"And there will be some people who saw the original retweet but won't see the correction, I get that, but I think credibility is so important that corrections have to be one of the things we take most seriously. I think we want to be diligent about it and transparent about it."
- 'Report the error' buttons and forms
The Washington Post, for example, offers a corrections button which then links through to a general contact page online. Interestingly, the Post last week sought to clarify their approach to corrections, as outlined by this Poynter post by Silverman.
A number of news sites within Digital First Media's Journal Register Company also offer such a button, including the Register Citizen and the Morning Sun.
Buttry said while he did not think this was company-wide, "I know we've highlighted what they do and encouraged it".
"I think it's probably pretty widespread but we try to give our newsrooms some local autonomy and have local editors ... so there probably are some who've decided to handle things differently."
Silverman said that providing "ways on your website where you actually encourage people to report mistakes" is a "really important" feature.
He also recommended "creating a place on your site" where corrections can be collected, "so if people are interested they can see all the corrections to recent articles".
"One reason why I recommend that is the chances that people go back and read a piece of content again are pretty slim.
"So if there was a mistake in it, how do you get the people who already read that mistake to know about the correction?
"And I think one way is on your site, to have a place where corrections are collected so that if somebody happens upon that page they maybe will see that 'oh, I read that article and there was a mistake in it'.
As mentioned earlier, the New York Times, for example, runs the corrections from the page two column of the newspaper online daily. It is also planning on launching an online corrections form shortly.
- Unpublishing articles
"Unpublishing is really important because I think there are times, particularly when it's an egregious error or when something includes plagiarised or fabricated content, the first instinct is 'oh my god, let's get this off our site'."
But he said this can risk sending a message to the reader that "oh, we're trying to hide this, we're trying to remove it and pretend like nothing ever happened".
"So what I advocate instead of just killing the URL itself is to go in and update that piece of content". He said that might mean adding a correction, or maybe "a detailed editor's note" explaining what the article was which previously appeared at that link and why it was removed.
But overall he said he would "really lean and recommend against unpublishing".
"Most of the times it's done it just creates this aura of 'oh, we're trying to hide something' or 'nothing to see here, please just move along'".
Update: As highlighted earlier, when it comes to potentially libellous content UK publishers would need to consider their approach in light of UK libel laws.
- This feature follows a podcast on the subject of online corrections featuring Brock, Silverman and Buttry
In terms of the placement of online corrections the Press Complaints Commission issued guidance on this in 2011. This note also highlights that "in cases involving the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance".
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