Rudy Lee
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The controversy over online corrections policies

Corrections_mainBefore the launch of OpenFile, editor-in-chief Kathy Vey knew that the hyperlocal news site needed an online corrections policy. “It’s not just a policy,” she says. “It’s our credibility on the line.” And once a news outlet loses its credibility, it is extremely difficult to get it back. OpenFile brought Craig Silverman aboard as editorial director knowing that he’d made a name for himself as the foremost expert on media corrections in North America. Silverman drafted a brief and animated statement: “If we’ve spelled someone’s name wrong, listed an incorrect address or committed any other grievous crime against The Truth, please-please-PLEASE let us know. You will be notified by a red-faced OpenFile editor once we’ve fixed things up, and we’ll credit you as the eagle-eyed source of the correction. It’s the least we can do.”

In the first week after the launch of the site, Silverman himself made an error in a blog post. Oh God, thought Vey, now we have to run a correction.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The explosive growth of online journalism has created a challenge for editors: how to handle corrections in a medium where it’s easy to make errors disappear. Perhaps too easy. Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor, says there are days when she receives 50 to 60 emails. While the majority are correction requests, sometimes readers are totally off base, sometimes they’re just commenting and sometimes they just disagree with something. Yet the Star is one of the leading newspapers in Canada to adopt a formal policy for handling online corrections.

But newsrooms do more than just disregard mistakes. “It’s still surprising how many news organizations are just going in, scrubbing away a factual error and pretending nothing happened,” says Silverman, who has been leading a charge to formalize the way they’re handled.

The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) has joined him in advocating for a different approach, but the majority of newsrooms remain reluctant to take action. In fact, even the need for online correction policies remains a contentious debate, one that revolves around transparency, accuracy and accountability. While a few editors consider having a clear policy essential, most give an indifferent shrug to the idea, and some even scoff at it.

Silverman found himself on the beat by accident. He first experienced corrections with Zero-Knowledge Systems, a Canadian tech company that flourished during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. As a corporate writer, he had to request corrections from news organizations that made erroneous reports about the company, be it as simple as an incorrect name or as heinous as The Wall Street Journal claiming Zero-Knowledge had gone under.

A fan of media blogs such as Gawker and enamored with the idea of his own solo operation, Silverman eventually decided to start blogging about corrections. “They’re short, really funny, really amazing and not hard to find,” he says. But Silverman is a rarity because corrections concern him even when they do not directly affect him. People tend to care about corrections when something goes wrong—journalists, when they screw something up, and sources, when they fall victim to an error. That’s why it should not have been a surprise when he circulated a proposal for a corrections blog among his journalist friends in late 2003 and the response was one of apathy. But one Sunday night several months later, he thought, Screw it, I’ll do it.

And so Silverman founded Regret the Error, a name derived from the phrase many papers add to the end of their corrections. One of his first posts was a roundup of corrections. Today he describes it as “woefully inadequate.” Despite this, the website received 10,000 views on its first day. While Silverman openly admits that the corrections beat is neither sexy nor lucrative, it is something that journalists need to acknowledge on a daily basis.

From curating and commenting on the most egregious, most amusing, most notable corrections—or lack thereof—Silverman crafted a brand for himself, one that led him to write Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech, which won a U.S. National Press Club award, and helped him land weekly columns for the Columbia Journalism Review and the Star.

There was nothing as dramatic as a eureka moment, but the more time he devoted to his site, the more he realized: Canada was not living up to the standards of U.S. publications when it came to handling online corrections.

A good corrections policy starts with the understanding that mistakes are inevitable. Once a news organization comes to terms with this, it must endeavour to correct the errors clearly and transparently. Silverman points to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post as papers with good practices for dealing with corrections online. Most important: fix everything that comes to an editor’s attention as an error of fact, within the text as well as in an appended correction that explains the nature of the error and notes that something has been fixed. The Washington Post places its corrections at the top of stories, while The New York Times places them at the bottom. There’s obviously a better chance of people reading it when it is at the top, but there is no standard regarding the placement of the notice.

The best approach, in addition to noting corrections, is a dedicated corrections page, a spot to aggregate fixes from across the organization’s entire website. A centralized place, accessible from the home page, not only allows readers to find every single correction, but assures them that a news organization is transparent in admitting its mistakes. From an internal perspective, having a place to collect errors allows editors to track mistakes made by particular journalists, particular departments or common mistakes overall. As Silverman says, “You cannot prevent errors and fix mistakes if you don’t know what’s wrong.”

The final essential element is a button on every piece of content—on stories, on blog posts—that encourages readers to report errors and gives them a clear path to do so. If readers find it difficult to report errors, the goal of correcting as many as possible becomes hard to achieve. The Star’s practice is that every reported error goes directly to English for revision, verification and any necessary corrective action. When a reader submits an error report, English and her associate, Liz McDonnell, review it and send it to the reporter for his or her input. They look at the independent research, and if there is indeed a mistake, they run a correction.

Silverman summarized these practices into recommendations for online corrections; his ideas quickly found a few zealous takers. Vey, for example, was on board with the idea of aggressively flagging OpenFile’s online errors from the website’s launch. “If there is ever a situation where we misconstrue, misspell, mistake or misquote, we want to own that right away,” says Vey. “We want to admit it and rectify it and make sure we let as many people as possible know that we made this mistake and we’ve done what we can to make amends.”

The Star’s policy was also substantively inspired by Silverman’s work. Shortly after English became public editor in 2007, she became aware that an intern had made a mistake in a story and then approached the web desk to change it in lieu of bringing it to a higher-up’s attention. “I was up in arms realizing that people were going to web editors to have changes made quietly,” says English. This was confirmation enough that invisible mending occurred online without any consistency, any follow-through or any transparency.

In the short run, English formed a committee that concluded there should not be a major discrepancy between the way the paper handled corrections online and the way it dealt with them in print. When a story in the newspaper contains an error, the editors run a correction the following day.

But just because technology makes it easier to fix an error doesn’t mean that news organizations should correct mistakes as if they never occurred. “There are so many ways in which the digital world alters journalism and we need to be thinking about how this plays out in a digital space,” says English. “The principles of accuracy and transparency still apply.”

Meanwhile, the CAJ has released guidelines for online corrections. It created a committee in October 2010 consisting of Silverman, English, Star media lawyer Bert Bruser, Canadian Press editor-in-chief Scott White, Terrace Standard publisher and editor Rob Link, University of King’s College assistant professor of online journalism Tim Currie and Mount Royal associate professor of journalism Shauna Snow-Capparelli. This group has looked at how the principles of accuracy, transparency and accountability should apply to digital media.

Guidelines are certainly great, but Silverman says that while many journalists are eager to talk about accuracy, asking them to do something about it is comparable to pulling teeth. “Newsroom leaders across Canada will say ‘Oh, this is good,’” he predicts, “and do absolutely nothing.”

The Vancouver Sun is one newspaper that still isn’t sold on the idea of a formal policy. Deputy managing editor Harold Munro says that while the Sun immediately corrects all errors within stories, it does not routinely note corrections. “We may, if it’s something significant,” he says. Any further acknowledgement of errors is unnecessary. “How are we not admitting it?” he asks dismissively. “We are by correcting it.” He asks, rhetorically, how a reader would be notified of a correction after he or she has already read the offending article. He’s also skeptical about a dedicated corrections page, questioning how much traffic it would see.

Silverman attributes poor practices to a lack of education. “It’s not done out of malice,” he says. “In the most genuine sense, it’s done out of ignorance.” Silverman hopes the CAJ guidelines provide guidance for smaller newsrooms.

But even an industry leader such as The Globe and Mail, which doesn’t have a corrections page and won’t release the details of its policy, “unpublished” a column by Stephen Marche in 2010. About Rob Ford, then a mayoral candidate and now the mayor of Toronto, Marche wrote: “The mounds of fat that encircle Rob Ford’s body like greatly deflated tires of defeat are truly unprecedented in Canadian politics.” Silverman says unpublishing stories leads readers to question an outlet’s editorial judgment and journalists to question whether a publication is really willing to defend its writers.

Few news organizations think about the consequences of neglecting corrections—or their relationship to accuracy—on a daily basis. Instead, they take measures only when something goes horribly wrong. They worry that emphasizing corrections will lead to their inboxes being inundated with error reports. They fear owning up to their mistakes. And they worry that dealing with corrections will eat up time and resources.

Journalists are often quick to point the finger at errors, foibles and flaws in people and institutions, but readers justifiably point the finger at journalists unwilling to be transparent about their own mistakes. At risk is the credibility that’s so difficult to get back. The question that too few publications ask: How hypocritical do we look when we don’t deal with corrections properly?

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