Fixing errors online needs some correcting at news organizations

Newspaper CorrectionWe in the press talk a great game about correcting our errors, but in the end do a piss-poor job backing it up. (An academic study of corrections found that only two per cent of verified factual errors were corrected by newspapers. Perhaps piss-poor is too generous…)

Craig Silverman

The concept of “paper of record’ has already moved from print to online, just look for all the articles on the Web about “reputation management” (it’s a mini-industry). When someone is looking for information on a person or a place, or a thing or an event, they are going to Google; not heading to the public library for an exciting date with microfilm.

But newspapers and other news organizations really haven’t developed a solid or transparent set of policies and procedures to deal with the issue online. Most newspapers have longstanding policies on how errors are corrected in print, but if you ask editors and reporters about online corrections in their own newsrooms, you likely will get as many answers as people you ask.

(And every news organization is dealing with an increasing number of “unpublish requests,” a topic that an APME Online Credibility project headed by Kathy English of the Toronto Star dealt with extensively earlier this year with a Poynter NewsU webinar and a downloadable report that includes a framework for developing a policy.)

While the academic study Silverman refers to above is from a couple years ago, a new survey of online correction practices has just come out. MediaBugs, a website and project headed by Scott Rosenberg and Mark Follman, published earlier this week the results of a survey that highlights the haphazard approach by major news organizations in dealing with corrections online.

One finding ought to particularly rankle those in newspapers, whose editors often puff their chests with pride as they say newspapers are much more credible sources of information than other media, particularly TV news and blogs:

Interestingly, the cable news networks have the best overall record — a better one than newspapers or magazines. There’s one exception, however: the Fox News website is entirely lacking in any corrections-related content or information: no way to find out if they fixed something and no way to tell them they got it wrong.

Well, thankfully, there’s always Fox to set the bar low.

While it might not work for every organization, MediaBugs has put together a “best practices” for error reporting and corrections that ought to be used as a starting point for serious conversations in newsrooms about providing mechanisms online for reporting errors, policies for fixing errors online and the level of transparency that is appropriate.

And the discussion so far has swirled around news websites. Mobile sites and apps for smartphones and devices like the iPad bring yet another dimension to the issue of corrections. Are developers, online content people and editors asking “What about corrections” when developing the specs and feature sets for those? I think not.

(Image from PopHangOver.)

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