Errors in Anytown, U.S.A.

Academic brings an anonymous newsroom's corrections practices to light

Last spring, Kirstie Hettinga spent several months working two days a week as an unpaid intern at what she will only describe as “a small, regional newspaper in the Northeastern United States.” Yes, like many interns, she’s a student, but this was an unpaid internship of a different order.

Hettinga is a Ph.D candidate at Penn State, and a visiting assistant professor in media and communications studies at Ursinus College. Last year her doctoral committee at Penn State recommended she take on an internship to bolster her professional experience. Thus she joined the burgeoning ranks of unpaid media interns.

“I decided I didn’t just want to do an internship,” she told me. “I wanted to do a research paper as well.”

She presented the resulting paper a few weeks ago at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s 2011 conference.

For reasons of academic confidentiality, she can’t name the newspaper where she worked. Instead, in her paper she gives it the generic title of The Daily Express. It sounds like the local newspaper in Anytown, U.S.A. That’s kind of fitting because her paper, titled “Experiencing Error: How Journalists Describe What It’s Like When the Press Fails,” provides a snapshot of the common attitudes present in a typical American newsroom when it comes to errors, accuracy and corrections. The paper also highlights some of the challenges that newsrooms large and small face with the emergence of online publishing.

To gather her material, Hettinga interviewed some of her fellow journalists at the paper to learn about their experiences with error, how they dealt with mistakes, and what their general attitude is towards accuracy and corrections. Her paper quotes them under first-name only pseudonyms.

The most amazing piece of feedback she gathered came from Nathan, a 29 year-old reporter. Here’s how he described what he did after mixing up two people’s names in a story:

I actually drove out and I visited both the guys in person and apologized in person, rather than over the phone. I thought I owed them at least that. I thought that was the best thing I could do to the two of them, was to, give them the chance, if they wanted to, to punch me or whatever… Well, you know, it’s the least I could do to them. It’s… so I spent my morning driving around, apologizing. Which is not a very fun thing to do. You know. It’s pretty tough. So it’s part of my penance that I make myself do.

That stands out, but there are similar quotes in Hettinga’s paper. Several reporters or editors talked about how an error eats away at them. (Nathan actually compared it to being kicked by a mule. Yeah, this guy is awesome.)

Ross, a 37 year-old features reporter who has worked in journalism for a couple of decades, spoke about when he finishes work for the day and is “pulling out of the parking lot and I have a sudden panic attack that I’ve completely misspelled something or I’ve gotten something wrong or sometimes I just want to go back and change a word and I think reporters can identify with that…”

Harry, 28, the recently recently-promoted assistant news editor, talked of receiving calls at night from reporters asking him to recheck something in their copy.

Hettinga’s research provides some charming and relatable moments of journalists trying their best to get things right. And it shows committed professionals who are torn up inside when they make a mistake.

Of course, it’s not always that way. It never is. The act of reporting is a process that’s never finished and always threatens to go the wrong way. We know we will make mistakes.

Hettinga writes that when she asks a journalist if they’ve ever made a mistake, she usually gets the same reaction.

“This question was most commonly met with amusement, and occasionally laughter,” she said in her paper. “I interpreted this amusement as a kind of ‘well, of course’ attitude that implied that error was common.”

This is where the charming, quaint picture of the good people at The Daily Express starts to change. Everyone knows they will make errors, but the organization as a whole and many of the individuals don’t spend much time talking about prevention, or working on corrections. Some actively try to avoid fixing their mistakes.

Here’s one journalist talking about the fact that it’s pretty easy to bury an error at the paper: “If I wrote a story, and I screwed something up and nobody else noticed it, I don’t think I’d go out of my way to write a correction about it.”

Another said she felt the paper was too quick to offer corrections as a way to appease readers.

“I don’t like the idea … that we’re catering to how someone wants to appear,” she said. “I think we’re a little bit too quick to say, ‘oh we’re sorry.’ ”

I asked Hettinga what surprised her that she learned during the interviews. Along with Nathan’s in-person apologies for a mistake, she spoke of one journalist who detailed the extent to which he tried to talk people out of corrections.

“I think it was probably when I interviewed the sports reporter who talked about smoothing over an error,” she said. “What had happened was he had been covering I think it was a high school sport or something and he had messed up an athlete’s name. Not surprisingly the student athlete’s parents called and said, ‘Hey, you got my kid’s name wrong.’ He said that he felt he had apologized in such a way that the whole thing was smoothed over. The parents were now happy, they understood that he felt sad about making the mistake and therefore it didn’t really need to be corrected.”

Not surprisingly, Hettinga also found there was no process for online corrections at the paper. Those in the newsroom knew that a print correction would run on A2, and they seemed to have a general idea about how to write corrections and get them in the paper. (This was in spite of the fact that Hettinga couldn’t find any written policies regarding corrections.) Online was an afterthought. The best that seemed to happen was an editor would sometimes go in and scrub errors out of online content. So no actual written notice of corrections.

“He typically would do that for something ‘smaller,’ as he described it, something like updating a name error or a date error like that, he would scrub it,” she told me. “But, again, it wasn’t consistent either. It was if he thought of it, if someone reminded him.”
This Jekyll and Hyde reality at The Daily Express is a big part of what I think makes its newsroom so typical. There are good people working hard and trying their best. They care about the quality of their work. But some of these same people have a backwards attitude about what it means to be accountable or to truly correct something. Others simply want to avoid the issue altogether.

Amidst these differences, there is a lack of understanding and policies around accuracy and corrections. The leadership is not setting an example or providing the necessary guidance. On top of all of that, online is not considered a place to treat corrections seriously.

I think you’d find a lot of newsrooms who fit the above description.

But what of the Express’s recent unpaid intern? After spending months proofreading and laying out pages, did Hettinga find herself staring down the barrel of a correction?

She tried to recall a mistake of her own: “I want to say I messed up something in the calendar… like I changed it from AP style to non-AP style, but I can’t remember exactly what it was… but it was caught before it went to press. So in the short time I was there I didn’t have a printed correction—woo hoo! But I’m sure I made another mistake that wasn’t caught.”

Correction of the Week

THE AUSTRALIAN yesterday published an opinion piece by Glenn Milne (“PM a lost cause for warring unions”, Page 14) that included assertions about the conduct of the Prime Minister.

The Australian acknowledges these assertions are untrue.

The Australian also acknowledges no attempt was made by anyone employed by, or associated with, The Australian to contact the Prime Minister in relation to this matter.
The Australian unreservedly apologises to the Prime Minister and to its readers for the publication of these claims. — The Australian

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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