How Do Journos Find Time to Fight Corrections?

Instead of arguing over factual errors, fix them and move on

On November 8, I received a call in my office from a frustrated online editor at The Bangor Daily News, my local paper. He was upset that I was “flaming the paper on Twitter” by questioning its accuracy, something he found “very unprofessional.”

The editor was upset that I called out his paper on Twitter for not correcting a number of simple errors I brought to their attention. It’s a struggle to get them to correct the record. These were the unaddressed errors: 1) Incorrectly reporting, via a McClatchy-Tribune story, that Saudi Arabia prohibits women from leaving their homes without their faces covered; 2) Misspelling the name of the Maine city of Biddeford; 3) Reporting a wrong start time for a University of Maine football game; and 4) Reporting the wrong conference win/loss record of the University of Maine football team (this mistake was corrected online, but readers weren’t initially notified of the correction).

The editor called me to argue that these mistakes didn’t need to be corrected. The Saudi Arabia error, I was told, had been checked out with the reporter who wrote the story, who said it was fine. “Alright,” I said, “but it’s still factually inaccurate.” As for the misspelling of the town of Biddeford, that was a typo, the editor said, so a correction wasn’t necessary. (The editor-in-chief of the Bangor paper contacted me later and told me that, in fact, a correction should have been run.) The kickoff time of the Maine football game wasn’t worthy of a correction, I was told, because the information came from a TV station, and also, by the time I reported the error, the football game was over, so the mistake was “moot.” The last transgression, the fact that an error was corrected online and readers weren’t notified, was legitimate, he said, and would be addressed.

What is remarkable about this conversation is not only that an editor contacted a reader (and writer for the Columbia Journalism Review) to argue against correcting the record, but that the overworked professional had time to do so. Locking horns with me on Twitter, via e-mail, and on the telephone surely took more time than simply fixing the mistakes and moving on. The paper had to partially do this anyway; someone recognized that the incorrect start time of the Maine football contest deserved a correction, which they eventually published.

The Bangor Daily News is not the only news organization, certainly, that resists proper corrections. The Los Angeles Times, GlobalPost, and the Raleigh News & Observer have all either ignored or denied factual mistakes I raised, and ultimately created more work for themselves. GlobalPost ignored my repeated requests for nearly a month to correct a simple factual error about Serbia, and didn’t respond until I told them I was writing about their recalcitrance in CJR. I then received an e-mail from GlobalPost’s executive editor, who was traveling in Europe with his family, defending the organization’s corrections policy. All because they referred to 1960s Yugoslavia as Serbia, and wouldn’t respond to my request to correct it.

There are plenty of publications that race to get things right. When I’ve contacted The New York Times regarding corrections, they’ve been fixed and listed online within hours. One tweak I suggested to the Times related to style, not necessarily factual error, as a Times reporter used the word “anachronism” when I believed she meant “anomaly.” Nonetheless, the malapropism was fixed online a few minutes after I e-mailed the author. Earlier this year, The St. Petersburg Times op-ed page misquoted Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather, a small mistake they promptly fixed. One of the swiftest and most rigorous newspapers I’ve come across in terms of corrections and accuracy is—this’ll be humbling—The Daily Tar Heel, the student-run paper of The University of North Carolina, a daily with the policy that a page-one error gets a page-one correction.

I know corrections are painful. I’ve endured them. My editor at CJR had to affix a correction to a recent story I wrote about, ahem, journalistic corrections. I incorrectly wrote that the Voice of America website didn’t state its online corrections policy. It was there, I just missed it. A VOA rep posted a comment beneath my story highlighting the mistake, I contacted my editor, and the error was righted before the close of business.

Rather than treating the correction request as a personal affront, I admitted the mistake, fixed it, and moved on. I really don’t have time to unnecessarily fight readers on matters of obvious factual accuracy (nor should I). And I thought most other journalists didn’t, either.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , ,