In late December, British tabloid The Sun published a correction to a sensational story it had writ large on the front page:
Further to our article about increased security at Coronation Street’s studios for their live 50th anniversary episode … we would like to make clear that while cast and crew were subject to full body searches, there was no specific threat from Al-Qaeda as we reported. We apologise for the misunderstanding and are happy to set the record straight.
That correction was the result of the Press Complaints Commission, the body that administers and enforces press self-regulation in the U.K. (In North America, we call similar organizations press councils.)
Like the news organizations it regulates, the PCC is working to evolve and update itself for the new world of news and information. It’s on Twitter, and is in the process of determining the role it can play in enforcing the Editors’ Code of Practice on websites and in social media. The Code was also recently updated to enable the PCC to play a bigger role in determining where publications place corrections and apologies that result from PCC findings.
I recently spoke with PCC director Stephen Abell to discuss the way the organization oversees corrections and apologies, and to learn how it plans to adapt its procedures for the online world.
If I understand it correctly, it seems that the organization is taking a larger role in terms of the wording and placement of apologies and corrections.
I think that’s been a process over last three or four years. I think what’s happened, and why you’re interested, is that it’s been codified. The Editors’ Code of Practice committee—which is a group of editors who write the code, which is then handed over to the PCC, which then enforces it—have changed the code to make it clear that if the complaint is made through the PCC, then the prominence of that apology or correction has to be agreed upon by the PCC. In practice that was happening anyway, because when someone makes a complaint of inaccuracy, we seek to resolve the complainant to their satisfaction The complainant has a large say, and always has, but it has never been codified.
What are some of the guiding principles that you use for that? Is it a case of, well, it was a front page error so the correction needs to be on the front page. How do you decide that?
The code refers to “due prominence,” so you have to take that into account in where the error appears, along with the significance of error in terms of the article—how much of the article is wrong? [We also consider] what took place behind the publication of the article, what steps have been taken to try and avoid mistakes, and the severity of the breach of the code has to be taken into account as well. All of those things have to be added up together, plus the wishes of the complainant.
What do they usually request? I’m always curious to hear from people who are not in the press. Do they usually ask for front page for corrections?
It really depends. Some people—and this not that often—they want it corrected on the record but they don’t want a big show of it, because, to a certain extent, some corrections bring back the story again even if it’s been corrected But more often, what they want is a sort of appropriate level of prominence.
Generally speaking, in about 85 percent of cases it either goes on same page or an earlier page or in the corrections column. That’s the standard we’ve reached over the last three or four years. It’s an area we are trying to push forward because if papers are going to get things wrong, which they do, it actually does them credit in the end if they correct things or apologize. There is an argument that papers will have greater credibility if they actually own up to their mistakes.
There was a study done in the United States—it’s over a decade old now—that found that newspaper readers who saw corrections on a regular basis actually felt better about their paper than readers who didn’t see corrections on a regular basis. Because they saw there was some kind of accountability measure in place.
I think that’s true. One of the things we’re pushing for this year [is for] newspapers to be more visible about their adherence to the Code and the existence of the PCC. It’s for the same reason that if you tell your readers there is a system by which editors can be held accountable, ultimately they may feel more comfortable they can trust in the product they are reading.