A Front-and-Center Corrections Policy

TBD.com launches its policy before launching site

Prior to publishing the first and, as it would turn out, only edition of his 1690 newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, Benjamin Harris wrote a prospectus to outline exactly what his publication would bring to the community. His was certainly a novel venture, in that it was first newspaper published in what would later become the United States. But Harris’s prospectus was also notable because it included what amounted to a corrections policy:

… nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.

As far as I can tell, this is the oldest printed corrections policy on record. (Seen an earlier one? E-mail me, post haste.) It’s remarkable that he thought to declare his commitment to correcting mistakes prior to publishing a single word. That’s almost never done today, which is why it was a surprise to see TBD, a soon-to-launch local news Web site in Washington, D.C., publish a blog post about corrections and accuracy before the site’s launch.

TBD is trying to do things differently when it comes to local news, and it has already moved in that direction by being up front about how the site will manage corrections and fix mistakes. It’s also working on a novel way to disclose to readers what is and isn’t present in its journalism.

It was all laid out in a post co-authored by Erik Wemple, TBD’s editor, and Steve Buttry, its director of community engagement:

TBD will be a non-traditional journalism organization in many ways. But we’ll be really old-fashioned in one respect: Our commitment to accuracy.

… We will be as aggressive in correcting our mistakes as we were in making them. Each article or blog item that includes a mistake will carry highly visible correction, and a repository for all corrections that appear on the site will be available sometime after launch. The corrections policy will apply to all errors of fact as well as misspellings of proper nouns and the like. Errors than can be classified as typos will get a pass.

One of the unique challenges faced by TBD is that it will be republishing blog posts taken from its growing TBD Community Network of over 100 local bloggers. This content isn’t produced or edited by TBD’s team—but it appears on their site alongside its original content. So the site bears some responsibility.

“We are not fact checking what they do, but we are taking a look at their work and trying to get a sense of who is seriously trying to provide viable information for their community. And we think that along with that would come a general commitment to the truth,” Buttry says. “We’re looking for people who seem to be committed to providing useful, valuable local information. Even if they’re not traditional journalists, that’s a priority and value that is going to drive their desire to be accurate.”

TBD has a policy for applying corrections to the Network posts, and the site will also have a dedicated corrections page. (Of course, as Buttry says, “Intention and execution are two different things.” But you can’t have one without the other.)

Aside from TBD’s corrections policy and procedures, it’s particularly notable that the site’s articles will include a “Complete This Story.” The text in this box will “prompt users to tell us what’s wrong, and it’ll also note the story’s weaknesses as identified by editors and reporters at TBD, inviting you to help us fill the holes,” according to the recent TBD blog post.

This, Buttry says, is a way of acknowledging the continuous nature of news on the site, and the fact that every story will have weaknesses or holes. By admitting them, TBD hopes to inspire readers to help in filling holes and spot mistakes.

“We want to acknowledge the imperfections we see and invite people to help us fill those gaps and point out other mistakes,” he says. “We think it will build credibility and we do think corrections and being candid and humble about the mistakes you make builds credibility.”

The “Complete This Story” box is still in development—when asked when the site will launch, all Buttry would say is “soon”—and TBD is going to be working with its journalists to train them how to best use this feature. My guess is it will take time and experimentation to get it to work correctly, and some reporters will inevitably be better at using it than others.

“Our deadline is always as soon as you can get it online,” Buttry says. “We need to have workshops before launch … One of the things we’ll talk about is if you’re trying to crowdsource whether something is true you won’t repeat the rumor and say, ‘We’re trying to nail down this rumor.’ We might say ‘We’re trying to find out if you know anything about’ and state the topic.”

Along with being a way to facilitate crowdsourcing, it’s an important step in the direction of acknowledging that, as my friend David Cohn likes to say, journalism is a process, not a product.

Buttry says the box is also a way of being transparent about what is and isn’t contained in a story. Ultimately, he believes that exposing your challenges and weaknesses is a good way to build trust.

“We’re gong to make mistakes—I guarantee you that,” he says. “But we’re going to make and correct them in a transparent way that will build credibility.”

Correction of the Week

“A picture of Pearl Te Amo, sent to prison for drink- driving causing death and for failing to stop after the accident, was incorrectly captioned yesterday as Michelle Grace (pictured), who was the victim of the fatal crash. We apologise to the extended Grace family for the distress this mistake caused.” – The Southland Times (New Zealand)

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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.