Sooner or later, any news ombudsman or public editor will end up addressing the issues of accuracy, errors, and corrections. In fact, it sometimes feels as though there’s a template for an ombud column about accuracy: Detail a recent mistake, note the ensuing complaints and the shame felt by those involved, cite the measures (if any) being taken to prevent it from happening again, and add a closing section about the importance of getting it right.
It’s far better than no column at all, but there often seems to be a lack of follow up. I had that in mind last year when I read a corrections-related column from Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman of The Washington Post. I noted in a subsequent column of my own that Alexander’s look at corrections would not kick off “… a seven-part investigative series.”
I was wrong. Alexander has proven a dogged investigator of the Post’s corrections process. He’s dedicated several columns and blog posts to the topic, and has nudged the paper to address problems.
I contacted him this week to talk about his corrections-related work and, of course, to confess my mistake. Below is our exchange.
CJR: How would you describe your level of interest in corrections and errors prior to taking on your current position?
Andrew Alexander: As the Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, my interest was exclusively in making sure that our staff minimized errors and quickly corrected them when they were made. In that respect, it was a high priority for me. Like many managers, I kept track of error/correction rates for staffers and that was a factor in determining annual raises. And when we made errors at Cox, we tried hard to issue corrections immediately. (In case you’re wondering, the Cox bureau had about 25 editorial employees in Washington, as well as correspondents in N.Y., California and seven full time foreign correspondents … I was with Cox my entire career before becoming Post ombudsman in early 2009… )
CJR: How soon into your tenure as ombudsman did you encounter an issue related to a correction or error?
AA: I had been ombudsman for only about a month when I discovered that The Post had a backlog of hundreds of correction requests, with some dating to 2004. I discovered this after I requested (and was granted) access rights to The Post’s internal corrections database. Under The Post’s system, correction requests are made by readers who submit them by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or they are submitted by phone or letter through reporters or editors, who are required under Post rules to enter the request into the database.
When I first looked at the database and discovered the backlog, I was stunned. I wrote about it in one of my earliest columns (on March 22, 2009). It was deeply embarrassing for The Post. To its credit, immediate efforts were made to eliminate the backlog. For some extended period, the paper was forced to run corrections for errors that had occurred literally years earlier. A wide range of editors were summoned to a meeting to make certain they understood the corrections database and how it operated. I felt that The Post’s top editors reacted properly and with a sense of urgency.
CJR: Do you find this is an issue that pops up daily? Weekly? How often?
AA: Almost weekly, I hear from readers who feel their correction request was rejected without merit. In most cases, when I look into it, I believe The Post was justified in not running a correction.
CJR: And in terms of corrections/errors, what’s the most common thing you have to deal with?
AA: There is no commonality. I see a lot of requests (from both sides) alleging The Post improperly interpreted historical events in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
CJR: I have to admit to an error of my own. In a column I wrote about a column of yours that details The Post’s broken corrections process I suggested that this issue would probably fade from the paper’s—and your—radar. You’ve proven me wrong. So why have you stayed on the corrections beat?
AA: I can’t think any anything more important for a news organization than accuracy. It speaks to credibility, which is essential if major newspapers like The Post are to survive in print and online. My continued interest flowed naturally from the initial March 22 column that revealed The Post’s huge corrections backlog. About a month after that, I wrote a follow-up column that reported to readers about progress. Since that time, I’ve written several more columns dealing with various aspects of the corrections process. One scolded The Post for continuing to be slow in addressing correction requests. Another, which quoted you, suggested new ways of correcting errors.