Slate Shuts the Window

A long-overdue corrections policy revision

Not long after Slate launched in 1996, editor Michael Kinsley was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to correct an online article. He decided to tackle the challenge in part by detailing the issue in an article:

How do you correct errors in an online publication? We naturally assumed the problem would never arise for SLATE. But it has. In a printed magazine, the usual practice is to publish a correction notice—written in a tone varying from abject to grudging, depending on the circumstances—in a subsequent issue. The error itself, meanwhile, remains stamped with ink on paper forever. Online, of course, nothing is permanent. It’s possible to go back days or weeks after an article is “published” and actually correct the error. But this seems like cheating, somehow … We have decided, instead, in most circumstances, to correct the error and publish a notice as well. That way, readers can know that every SLATE article is as accurate as we can make it, and still have the pleasure of watching us grovel from time to time.

Since then, the site has grappled with other correction-related issues and largely done so honorably, not to mention innovatively. Slate created a written correction policy around 2003, has appointed one of its editors to be the internal “corrections czar” in order to deal with all error reports, and built a novel way of displaying corrections within articles. (I detailed it here.) It also has a dedicated corrections page linked from the homepage. It’s ahead of the curve in many respects.

So when people ask me to name a website that does corrections right, I often point to Slate. At least I did so prior to this summer, when Slate exposed a flaw in its corrections process while in the process of calling out Politico’s seemingly lax corrections standard. The good news is that Slate appears to have fixed its problem, and editor David Plotz got in touch with me this week to detail how that happened. But first, here’s a précis of what went wrong for both Slate and Politico.

In July, Slate published an article that provided evidence that Politico was routinely scrubbing errors out of its stories without adding a correction or similar notice for readers. Slate’s story, of course, was noticed by many journalists and many of us, myself included, weighed in with criticism and reaction. Then the tables began to turn: Politico pointed out several mistakes in Slate’s reporting and, in the end, Slate admitted that its correction policy had a provision that allowed for it to scrub factual errors from stories without the addition of a correction. (Provided that the error was spotted within twenty-four hours of publication, and it was spotted by someone at Slate.) Pot, meet kettle.

In the end, Slate issued corrections to the top and bottom of the article, admitted to an unknown and, frankly, unacceptable aspect of its correction policy, and Politico fixed its offending articles and committed to do better in the future.

When we spoke this week, Plotz called the dustup with Politico “embarrassing” and said it happened “because of a mistake by me, which was not to really realize and then not to notice or call attention to the fact that we were tweaking them for things we were doing ourselves.”

After the incident, Plotz decided the Slate organization needed to reexamine the “twenty-four hour window” rule that saw it scrubbing errors out of articles. He convened an e-mail discussion between the site’s top editors and initially suggested they shorten the window.

“We went back and forth on shortening the window and actually it was Jack [Shafer, the site’s editor at large and Press Box columnist] who weighed in and said, ‘Look this just doesn’t make any sense. The window is the problem and we have to be really transparent about this …’,” Plotz said.

The group quickly realized Shafer was right. At this point, I’ll disclose that Shafer and I spoke earlier this month in order to discuss Slate’s corrections policy and the issue of the window. I have no idea if this was before or after he made his suggestion to the group, but I can say that he and I are in agreement: the window needed to be closed.

Plotz said it’s been shut, with one small exception: the site’ aggregation feature, The Slatest, is still making fixes without correction if the errors are spotted within sixty minutes of publication. Plotz said this is because of the way the content is produced, and that the window will close when The Slatest undergoes some changes, which should be soon.

“The experience with Politico made us realize we can’t be critical of others for this if we are not living up to similar standard ourselves,” he said. “We basically voided that clause with one tiny exception. Now there is no longer any window for factual errors. They are corrected—it doesn’t matter when they’re caught, how they’re caught, who catches them. We’ll see, maybe there will be a huge surge in corrections with Slate. And maybe not.”

Now Slate is once again a site I’ll cite as a good example of how to handle corrections; more important, the lesson for all news organizations is that you’re never really finished with corrections. Policies and procedures need to be reexamined annually, or any time a new situation or issue arises. It’s surprisingly easy to suddenly find yourself behind the curve.

“I think we felt like we have a policy, we have a corrections czar, we know what we’re doing, and it’s all pretty transparent and therefore we’re in a different category,” Plotz said. “But in fact were making these same after-the-fact changes [as Politico] that were invisible to readers, which were effectively corrections.”

Perhaps the final lesson is that corrections hubris is a dangerous thing — and almost always ends in comeuppance.

Correction of the Week

An article on Wednesday about the quarrels among President Obama’s national security advisers described in a new book by Bob Woodward referred incompletely to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s reported assessment of Richard C. Holbrooke, the president’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Mr. Biden is indeed quoted as calling Mr. Holbrooke “the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” he also is quoted saying that Mr. Holbrooke “may be the right guy for the job.” – The New York Times

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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.