“Accuracy is our goal, and candor is our defense,” proclaims The Washington Post’s credo for handling corrections and doing so promptly. Imagine the “A Corrections Process in Need of Correcting,” Alexander observed that reporting inaccuracy for some was akin to “sending a correction request into a black hole.”
Rest assured that the Post won’t be lonely in digging deep into this black hole. News errors rarely are corrected. In a study I did of factual errors reported to 10 daily newspapers, I found that nearly all—97 percent—went uncorrected. Nevertheless, survey research indicates the majority of U.S. newspaper editors and reporters believe that a correction “always” follows a detected error. This level of faith is not widely shared by newspaper readers.
It’s important to understand why newspapers have tended to fall short on their perceived commitment to correct what they got wrong the first time around. And in a time when anybody can easily post—and pass along—news and information online (usually without an editor’s scrutiny), the need is greater than ever to set in place a coherent system of correcting errors—despite the digital practitioners’ assurances about the Web’s inherent self-correcting nature.
With accuracy as the foundation of media credibility, setting the record straight is essential to restoring trust that is eroded by errors. The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states: “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”
So, if corrections are agreed to be a fundamental contract of journalism, then why have newspapers shown themselves to be hesitant, at times, to acknowledge their errors? I’d propose a few explanations:
Unwillingness to recognize that errors are numerous: Journalists err more often than many in the profession acknowledge—or even realize. The first step in overcoming inaccuracy is to recognize that errors in the press are far more numerous than the “corrections box’’ would indicate. Industry and scholarly research have documented time and time again that errors in the news media are disturbingly common. The largest accuracy audit, a recent study that Philip Meyer and I conducted of 22 newspapers, found an error rate among the highest in seven decades of accuracy research: over 59 percent of local news and feature stories were found by news sources to have at least one error. Still to be assessed by research is the toll on accuracy brought by newsroom staff reductions and the concurrent expansion to 24/7 operations producing print and digital editions of the news.
Hesitancy in offering corrections: In a follow-up study, I tracked 1,220 news stories identified by news sources as being factually flawed. Of those, corrections were published for 23 of them, a corrections rate slightly below two percent.
Hesitancy in demanding corrections: Journalists and news organizations are often unaware of the errors they’ve made. In our cross-market examination of accuracy in U.S. newspapers, Meyer and I found that only about one in 10 news sources informed the newspaper of errors that they’d identified. While many errors were considered too inconsequential to correct, news sources also expressed a sense of futility; either a correction would do little to set the record straight, or worse, that their complaints would draw reprisal from the newspaper. The study’s findings are consistent with a large-scale public survey by Associated Press Managing Editors, in which many people told pollsters that they don’t contact newspapers about mistakes.
Reader complaints are often ignored or denied: The news media can hardly be expected to correct errors they do not know were made. But what happens when mistakes are brought to their attention? Too often, very little. Of 130 news stories in which the news sources said they informed the newspapers of factual inaccuracy, complaints yielded only four published corrections. In other words, the corrections rate budged barely higher (three percent compared to two percent) when sources reported factual errors than when they did not inform the newspaper of errors.
There are few incentives to acknowledge errors. Even quality newspapers often lack a system or culture of vigilance when handling reported errors. As Alexander noted in his Washington Post column, “Accountability is lacking. Reporters and editors can neglect correction requests with little consequence. Correction rates are not typically raised in performance evaluations.”
The corrections system is often flawed in print journalism, but the checks and balances needed to assure accuracy are arguably even more haphazard with the journalism that news organizations display online. In a survey of 155 U.S. newspapers, my colleague John Russial found that in only half of the newsrooms were stories posted online always copyedited. Among larger newspapers (circulation above 100,000), a quarter reported they never copyedit online stories. Blogs received even less scrutiny—only one third of editors said they copyedit these Web postings. This sharply contrasts with the print tradition of having all stories, including staff columns and guest op-eds, be edited for accuracy, style, taste and libel.
“Unlike reporters and photographers, copyeditors have not been invited to participate in the online revolution at many newspapers. That failure might have serious implications for the quality of newspapers,” Russial dryly concludes in an article published in the Newspaper Research Journal.
Many bloggers contend that online news needs less editorial oversight because readers quickly point out errors and content is corrected in real time. “We need to realize that journalism and the telling of a news story is a process, and we don’t have to wait until we have everything before we publish,” writes Mathew Ingram in a PoynterOnline column with the provocative headline, “Break Journalism Rules When You Blog?” Ingram continues: “That doesn’t mean we should stop at telling just part of a story, of course; but it is fine to publish something short, then update, edit and correct. That’s what wire services do, after all.” A responsible blogger, Ingram adds, acknowledges mistakes and corrects them.
Still, a clear standard for handling online errors is lacking. As freelance journalist and author Craig Silverman notes in his “Regret the Error” column, news organizations often “scrub” their errors online. This means that an entire story can disappear without explanation when it has been found to have been erroneously reported. Yet, others not only quickly correct errors but acknowledge within the article what had been previously misreported. Unformulated, too, are accepted standards for correcting assertions made in citizen videos, blogs and other forms of social media.
Silverman argues that acknowledgement of inaccuracy is even more essential in an online world than in print because it is virtually impossible to erase erroneous information posted on the Internet. He writes: “Online errors don’t disappear like yesterday’s print edition. News organizations need to recognize what the new permanence means for errors and corrections, and act accordingly.”
News accuracy is an age-old challenge, now heightened by the online realities of real-time, multimedia reporting by citizens as well as professional journalists. While it’s not plausible, or perhaps even desirable, for every news error to be detected and corrected, clearly the profession—in print and online—can and should do better.
Minimizing errors by figuring out why they happen and doing what it takes to get the story right at the start is, of course, the best solution. As absurdly obvious as it might sound, the evidence supports it wholeheartedly. Research shows that error rates fall markedly when two things happen:
chagrin when earlier this year the newspaper’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, discovered a backlog of hundreds of correction requests; a few dated back to 2004. In his column,
Reporters take the time to recheck their work sentence by sentence.
Reporters and editors are held accountable for mistakes when they occur.
Ensuring prompt corrections is another good remedy. It might also seem obvious, but when National Public Radio last year adopted a vigorous policy to identify and correct mistakes in broadcasts and on the Web, the network reports that its corrections’ page had nearly as many error posts in one month as it had during the entire preceding two years. And The Washington Post whittled its huge corrections backlog after summoning 30 editors and staff for “remedial training” on how reported errors should be handled.
Digital practitioners should recognize that it isn’t sufficient just to update content as mistakes are discovered. If time doesn’t permit traditional copy-editing, then a system of “back editing” should be implemented so that all content benefits from an editor’s eye. Mistakes should not only be promptly corrected but also explicitly acknowledged in the story.
Then there is the now-legendary claim that the interactive nature of digital media makes mistakes quicker to be identified and corrected. This premise needs to be tested and evaluated by independent research. In the meantime, communication scholars also can help identify and evaluate ways to proactively curb inaccuracy as well as to encourage corrections when errors are made, whether in print or online.
Technological change does not fundamentally alter the need to publicly confront these errors. As The Washington Post states in its corrections policy: “We have an affirmative obligation to make corrections, not just to avoid repeating them. Confessing error enhances our credibility with readers, and humbles us appropriately.”
Scott R. Maier is an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. He worked for nearly 20 years as a newspaper and wire service reporter in Seattle, where he acknowledges having made more than his share of errors requiring correction.