RTE’s New Year Wishes

New year’s resolutions for corrections and accuracy

Several months ago, I received a phone call from an editor at a major U.S. newspaper. He explained that his paper’s Web site had been hosting blogs for roughly a year, but staff had recently realized that they were without a corrections style for blog posts.

Understandably, he wanted to get something in place as soon as possible.

Every time I’ve told this anecdote it has elicited a chuckle or sigh from fellow journalists. Yes, it’s a striking example of how a news organization pushed ahead with online initiatives without evolving their policies and procedures accordingly. But this paper is far from alone in forgetting to think about how to correct blog posts.

Other formerly print-only organizations are producing online videos, podcasts, and other new forms of storytelling, but they too haven’t thought about how to issue corrections for this kind of content.

My main wish for this new year is that we make 2009 the year that news organizations reexamine their accuracy and correction policies and procedures to make sure they are up to date. Just as storytelling and newsgathering continue to evolve, so should error prevention and correction.

This process of reevaluation should take into account the layoffs and buyouts that have thinned the ranks of copy editors and other quality control experts. Rather than simply adopting the mantra of “do more with less,” organizations can deal with this new reality by developing new processes for verifying and checking stories.

For example, reporters and editors could be trained to use accuracy checklists, and the process whereby an article passes from reporter to editor and onwards should be examined and altered to improve the element of verification.

Random fact checking, when an editor for a given section spends fifteen or twenty minutes prior to the production deadline double-checking a selection of verifiable facts from a sample of articles, could add a new layer of checking. It would also cause reporters to pay closer attention to fact checking prior to submitting their articles, lest they get caught in the daily dragnet.

Of course, online is the most obvious place for innovation.

The Web is the best medium we’ve ever had for correcting errors, but it also raises the stakes for mistakes. Once published online, an error can be repeated and republished in a matter of seconds. Yet we’re currently without a means to distribute corrections in an equally effective manner.

I recently published a list of my accuracy and corrections wishes for 2009. One of the most important is the creation of a simple way to notify other news sites and blogs of a correction to an online report. Here’s my admittedly inelegant description of this tool:

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a way to automatically notify a website that a correction was made to an article they’ve linked to? I’ve taken to calling this the “Reverse Trackback” or a “Correctforward.” A Trackback is a way of automatically notifying a site that its content (usually a blog post) has been linked by someone else. We need to reverse this and create a system that spiders out a correction notice to news sites or blogs that previously cited the original, incorrect article. The notification could, for example, take the form of a comment on the related post. (”This is an automated message to inform you that the Regret the Error post you linked to has been corrected. Please read the corrected post here [link].”) This would go a long way to helping push corrections out to the public, which is what needs to be done on the web. We shouldn’t expect people to go hunting for corrections.

My other wishes for the new year include seeing all news organizations launch regularly-updated online corrections pages linked from their homepage, and place corrections within the offending article. I also wished for an end to the scrubbing of mistakes, and a way for readers to automatically receive corrections to a specific article:

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a “Notify Me If This Article Is Corrected” button alongside all of the “Print” and “Share” buttons that appear on most online articles? The reader could simply enter their email address and receive an email if a correction was issued for the story. It’s great that more and more news sites are placing corrections within the story, but how many people go back and reread an article? A lot of readers are not seeing the corrections. As I noted above, we need to find a way to push corrections out to readers. This tool would enable readers to receive corrections for articles that they consider particularly important or useful.

These are but a few ways of evolving corrections and accuracy. The point is that this is a time of remarkable innovation in journalism. It would be a shame, not to mention a disaster for the business and profession, if we forged ahead without bringing error prevention and corrections along with us.

Correction of the Week

“The headline on a front-page article on Friday, on the role in the housing bubble and consumption binge in the United States played by investment from China, could have been misunderstood. The article described how the United States has been tolerating a huge trade deficit with China while Chinese authorities have invested huge sums in American government securities from savings partly created by the inflow of American dollars. “Dollar Shift: Chinese Pockets Filled as Americans’ Emptied” meant to describe the complications of that situation; it did not mean to imply that China has profited from the weakness of the American economy.” – The New York Times

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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.