A Conversation with Andrew Alexander

The Washington Post ombudsman on the paper's corrections process

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 corrections@washpost.com. 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.

In my blog, I’ve also raised concerns about the need for Post policies to be updated to address online corrections. And in my column last Sunday, I made a passing reference to a lingering problem: Corrections for obvious errors in online stories often get delayed while editors wait for the correction to be approved for publication in the newspaper. As I wrote, that’s “unacceptable” because it increases the odds that inaccurate information will go viral.

CJR: What’s the good news to report about corrections/accuracy at the Post?

AA: There has been marked improvement. Recently, I wrote a blog item noting that the backlog, which once went back years, has been virtually eliminated and that most corrections are now addressed within days. Section editors now are routinely notified when they have correction requests that have been pending more than 14 days and they are pestered until they are addressed. In addition, The Post is close to implementing a new corrections system that will streamline the process so that corrections can be made much faster online. Also, the current draft policy will give authority and responsibility to a few key people who will be tasked with riding herd on requests to make certain they are made quickly. Occasionally, requests still linger too long. But generally speaking, there’s been a huge improvement. I monitor the requests on a regular basis. If there’s backsliding, I’ll write about it.

CJR: What’s the bad news?

AA: If there’s any bad news, it’s that it’s taken longer than The Post hoped to implement the new system. Greater emphasis must be placed on how to correct online. And new policies must be written to address the uniqueness of the Web. For example, how does The Post intend to correct errors in videos? And can it come up with new methods for more aggressively “pushing” corrections to readers through RSS feeds?

CJR: What’s your most memorable corrections-related encounter since becoming the ombudsman at the Post?

AA: I think the most memorable was alerting section editors to the backlogs in their departments when I made the initial discovery about the pending requests. The Post’s Metro (local) staff, its largest, had a backlog of more than 160. For many of those, it had been determined that they didn’t warrant a correction but they’d never been “closed” in the system. Still, it was a large number. The Metro section editor at the time. Robert McCartney, reacted immediately and worked hard to correct the problem. He took it very seriously.

CJR: Turnabout is fair play, so I’m curious to know the most memorable or egregious error you made during your career.

AA: I’ve often thought about that. Thankfully, I’ve never had a whopper. I’ve made stupid errors on dates, addresses and names. In each case, it was unacceptable. Like many journalists, I live in fear of making an error. And I confess that I still occasionally wake from a dead sleep in fear that I somehow got something wrong in my column.

Corrections of the Week

“A June 22 article about G8 security measures in Huntsville incorrectly said that resident Steve Groomes has a gun at the ready should protestors get by the army of police and soldiers scouring the brushes. In fact, what Groomes said in a jovial way was that: ‘I’ve got an Easton 32 in the house.’ The Easton 32 is a baseball bat not a gun. The Star apologizes to Groomes for this misunderstanding.” – Toronto Star

“We mistakenly said that he was charged with possessing a handgun at Dolan’s Pub, Sunday’s Gate and we wish to point out that the actual charge is producing a wooden bat in the course of a dispute.” – Bray People (Ireland)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.