Many of the corrections that appear in the press are notable thanks to the significance or amusing nature of the mistake, or because they speak to a larger truth about journalism. But often the most important corrections are the ones that are never published.
This is because the best research we have about correction rates suggests that the vast majority of errors made in American newspapers—roughly 98 percent—are never corrected. That reality is now affecting journalist and author Scott Rosenberg on almost a daily basis.
I interviewed Rosenberg back in September about MediaBugs, a project he recently launched thanks to a Knight News Challenge grant. (I’m an unpaid advisor to MediaBugs, though I have nothing to do with its day-to-day operation.) The point of MediaBugs is to create a place where people in the San Francisco Bay Area can report errors found in local media. Then Rosenberg and associate director Mark Follman look at the bug (error) report and, if it seems valid, follow up with the offending outlet. They’re trying to increase public participation in the correction process, and, along the way, help discover and correct mistakes that otherwise might have fallen through the cracks.
This is important work. We need more corrections, rather than fewer. (“Fewer Errors, More Corrections” would be my slogan if this were an election. I’m convinced it would resonate with the Tea Party movement, thus ushering me into office.) One of the biggest barriers to correction is that people often have no idea how to go about getting one. Media outlets can unwittingly make it frustrating, confusing and ultimately pointless to report an error. That leaves members of the public feeling frustrated, and I think it also reduces their level of trust in the press.
Rosenberg experienced this dynamic first hand when he recently tried to report an error to The Wall Street Journal. Here’s an excerpt from a blog post that recounted his long and largely fruitless correction hunt:
I looked for some link on the Journal site for “corrections” or “report an error.” No such link exists on the Journal home page, nor did searching voluminous “Help” and “Customer Service” pages turn up anything. The “Contact us” page offers three general email addresses for feedback, labeled as follows:
Send a comment/inquiry about an article or feature in The Wall Street Journal to:
React to something you’ve read on WSJ.com at: email@example.com.
Offer a comment/suggestion about features and content on WSJ.com at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I challenge anyone who is not a part of the WSJ organization to interpret which of these three lines of inquiry would be an appropriate choice to report an error …
Aside from sending e-mails, he also posted a comment on the offending article and left a phone message. Nothing happened. It was only after his blog post made Romenesko and was retweeted on Twitter that the Journal leapt into action and fixed the error.
“A news organization should not expect the public to understand its internal structure [in order to request a correction],” Rosenberg told me.
He says we need a very clear standard for reporting an error, something that every news organization uses and that readers can learn to recognize.
“Part of the solution is for every site to have a button that says ‘Report an error,’ ” he says. “I’m debating whether one of the central focuses of MediaBugs should be a campaign to make it a Web standard so that every site has this button. ‘Share this’ became standard two or three years ago …”
Another example would be RSS. One way that it achieved mass adoption was by becoming standardized on major blogging platforms and then adopted by major Web sites. At the same time, the adoption of the RSS icon created a universal visual cue that helped drive understanding among Internet users.
Rosenberg is currently pondering the creation of something similar for “report an error” functionality. There are currently some large news Web sites that offer this—including the Toronto Star and Huffington Post (though theirs is hidden near the bottom of articles)—but it is by no means a standard. The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and CNN, among many others, don’t include that option on their articles and pages. It’s such a simple, effective way to collect error reports, not to mention give readers a chance to participate and contribute.
But where it should be placed on the page? Do we need a universal icon? How about the interface that pops up after you click on that button? Should that be standardized? The fundamental idea is sound, but there are lots of details to work out. Rosenberg is thinking of the best way to move forward with the idea, and I’m hoping to help.