Hear No Error, See No Error, Post No Error

The controversy over online corrections policies

Rudy Lee
Winter, 2012 | Comments (6) - Report an Error

 

Before 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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COMMENTS (6)
Clayton Burns
If we collate the actual statements in the review document at the Department for Education site with Gove's comments below, we will see that what he is talking about in relation to Canada is indeed a mirage, a bit of tinkering with grammar in Alberta:

Review of the National Curriculum in England: What can we learn.. ...
....from English, mathematics and science curricula of high-performing jurisdictions? (Published 19 December 2011.) A summary of the evidence gathered about curricula for English, mathematics and science in high performing jurisdictions.

Alberta also has a separate section on grammar, although it is not particularly detailed on the specific grammar to be learnt. Most statements are fairly general, for example “use a variety of strategies to make effective transitions between sentences and paragraphs in own writing” (Year 6), or “edit for subject-verb agreement” (Year 5).

[In a statement to MPs, Mr Gove highlighted the report’s findings that
Polish children read more demanding books at a younger age, including
works by Chekhov, Homer and Shakespeare.

He also pointed to the fact that students study grammar as a separate
subject in successful education systems in Canada and the US, as well
as Singapore.]

Clayton Burns PhD Vancouver claytonburns@gmail.com
Posted on 12/20/2011
Clayton Burns
I have a suggestion for rrj.ca for a January first 2012 editorial on practices and curricula in journalism schools.

Information Management. To begin with, "The Information." Then go right to work on a major print media reading cycle, the weekend NYT, WSJ, NP, Globe and Mail, and Sunday Times of London. Fully internalize this cycle in four months as the basis of a tough, mandatory, creative thinking exam in journalism.

Today on The Daily Telegraph site we have a stunningly incompetent allusion to Canadian practices in teaching grammar. The Toronto papers should have been all over this statement by now. We are dealing with a report out of Cambridge, and England's Education Secretary's statement on it.

Canadian journalism schools need to be teaching technology so that such major comments will get kicked into your inbox. For action. You have to follow through with timely, deep reporting. How can we perform live experiments on ourselves so that we will see the opportunities to maximize human cognition so as to track such news globally?

Mark Ashcraft's "Cognition" is powerful as an introduction to thinking, memory, and experimental method. The COBUILD English Grammar is the only elite teaching grammar of advanced English. These books should become official immediately for Ryerson journalism.

It would be hard to say whether texts are worse in Education or in Journalism, in Canadian university programs.

Harold Munro heads the list of editors on The Vancouver Sun's Editorial Page today. Does he understand the future of journalism in terms of the highest ethics? I say "No." He can't even manage information up to my standards.
Posted on 12/20/2011
Clayton Burns
Opaque practices for reader comment at macleans.ca OnCampus: I happened to quote The Toronto Star in my unposted fourth comment on "pragmatic." "Jane Switzer" of Twitter as below appears to be the writer for Macleans who happened to link to The Toronto Star "pragmatic" story the day her somewhat simplistic piece on the word was posted at OnCampus.

The details of who did the writing, based on what, would have to be established. However, a reader might think that Macleans is trying to cover its tracks and is making arbitrary decisions on what to post from its readers, so as to do so.

I am not prepared to draw that conclusion at this point. But with its "black box" approach to its treatment of its readers, Macleans online does not inspire confidence. Is Ryerson journalism keeping track of practices in Toronto to make sure that its students and former students are learning how to avoid malpractice? That seems to me to be at least an order of magnitude more important than a simple factual error.

Clayton Burns says: [macleans.ca]
Your comment is awaiting moderation.
December 20, 2011 at 3:14 pm
Telegraph.co.uk Education:

[In a statement to MPs, Mr Gove highlighted the report’s findings that
Polish children read more demanding books at a younger age, including
works by Chekhov, Homer and Shakespeare.

He also pointed to the fact that students study grammar as a separate
subject in successful education systems in Canada and the US, as well
as Singapore.]

I would recommend that at Ryerson journalism students take a required
high quality course in Information Management.

Macleans.ca OnCampus should already have had the Gove-GCSE comment at
The Daily Telegraph Education online, alluding to how “students study
grammar as a separate subject in successful education systems in
Canada…”.

This is a mirage. It is ludicrous. It is not happening. That was the
point of my fourth comment on “pragmatic,” one that was inexplicably
not posted here.

There is a reason that Toronto journalism does not rate with London or
New York journalism. Just too slow on the uptake.

I might mention that there is little extra value in the article here
when compared with The Toronto Star’s story on “pragmatic.” I did
quote from The Star in my fourth comment.

Clayton Burns says:
Your comment is awaiting moderation. [macleans.ca]
December 20, 2011 at 3:21 pm
Jane Switzer
@janeswitzer Toronto, ON
Ryerson journalism grad student and freelancer.
Text follow janeswitzer to 21212 in Canada Follow

janeswitzer Jane Switzer
Via @globeandmail: Kim Jong-il dead at 69: bit.ly/tNBMji
18 Dec

janeswitzer Jane Switzer
The prettiest cheesecake from @monicaheisey’s mum. yfrog.com/oebfdinj
18 Dec
»

janeswitzer Jane Switzer
Merriam-Webster’s 2011 Word of the Year: pragmatic! bit.ly/sAcoqY (runners-up: ambivalence, insidious, socialism, vitriol…)
15 Dec
Posted on 12/20/2011
Clayton Burns
Far, far more serious than simple factual errors: The Vancouver Sun's failure to get traction on the Dvorak letter, excerpt below. This is the worst case of malpractice in journalism that I am aware of in Canada over the past five years.

It is inexplicable. I hold Deputy Managing Editor Harold Munro responsible for this. The Sun was overdue for a change in Editor-in-Chief. It is time for Harold Munro to go as well.

Copyright National Post Company Mar 29, 2008
Re: The Ugly Face Of Medicare, John Turley-Ewart, March 28.

[...] In the past week or two, I could relate to you stories similar to Jennie's, but with the diagnoses of misdiagnosed spine fractures, paralysis due to metastatic cancer to the spine that was undiagnosed for weeks and gradual paralysis due to spinal stenosis (an easily treatable degenerative condition). [...]

Dr. Marcel Dvorak, head, Division of Spine, Vancouver Coastal Health and University of British Columbia.

The rrj.ca site should investigate the fortunes of the Dvorak letter from the perspective of the National Post, in line with an rrj.ca six-month audit for value of practices in Toronto-based journalism.
Posted on 12/20/2011
Clayton Burns
[‘Pragmatic’ named 2011 Word of the Year
By Jane Switzer | December 15th, 2011 | 2:08 pm (www.macleans.ca OnCampus)

Word received 'unprecedented' number of searches: Merriam-Webster.]

Is Jane Switzer a former or current Ryerson journalism student?

Does she choose the reader comments at her Macleans OnCampus online articles?

Does it make any sense not to post comment such as my fourth one on "pragmatic"?

What I would suggest is that from January to May 2012 rrj.ca review practices in journalism in Toronto. Many anomalies persist. For one, practices in posting reader comment at Macleans online. I do not consider this to be the most important matter in the world because I post infrequently there, and the site has posted some of my comments.

However, what Macleans does here constitutes "obscurantism." I also do not like the hectic style of the National Post, because the editors and reporters usually fail to respond to e-mail, or just throw a vague excuse at you. Of all the media sites I visit in England, the US, Canada, and Australia, the NP's is the slowest to load. If you comment on that at FP Tech, your comment will be studiously ignored.

The best media reading cycle is in England, especially Guardian, Telegraph, and LRB. Next best is in the US, even if The New York Times in its relentless attempts to go "lifestyle" is getting just too dull. Although it carried a recent strong story on testing in NY state.

The Australian, The Age, and ABC Australia have good sites.

I put Canada fourth in my daily media cycle because Canadians do not like to extend themselves very much: 1.UK 2.US 3.AUS 4.(FAR BACK)--CANUCKS.

What is wrong with Canadian journalism? Let's pick an under-performing paper and an under-performing editor: "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."
Posted on 12/20/2011
Clayton Burns
The idea of systematic and documented corrections is a good one. There is an issue in journalism, however, that is an order of magnitude more important.

The www.macleans.ca OnCampus story on "pragmatic" has attracted no comments, except for three of mine. Indicating that in Canada the interest in language is not robust.

Decisions at macleans.ca as to whether to post reader comments are opaque. I would say that the best comment that I had to offer on "pragmatic" was the fourth one, as below. But for some mysterious reason it was not posted. As if Canadians have severely limited attention spans.

Errors are an important subject. At the Telegraph site in England we have seen a mistaken story over the past couple of days on Columbia University, one that should have been corrected by now (NYU was actually involved). But such errors are far less important than other content issues in online editing. (A Globe and Mail reporter has complained bitterly to me about editing generally at his own paper. I would have to agree with him).

What irritates me about the Telegraph is not its laughable error about Columbia, but its stubborn incapacity to learn from reader comment on telegraph.co.uk. One recent education story there is on Tim Oates's report on GCSEs in England, a report that praises grammar teaching in Canada. This is silly. Grammar teaching in the schools of Canada is pathetic.

What is more serious, the factual error about Columbia, or the bleak incompetence in relation to grammar? To what degree has Oates's delusion been covered in Canada? As opposed to deleting comment on the very subject.

Macleans.ca On Campus

Your comment is awaiting moderation.
December 19, 2011 at 1:58 pm
The Toronto Star: [“Pragmatic” may have sparked dictionary users’
interest both because they’d heard it in conversations, and because it
captures the current American mood of encouraging practicality over
frivolity, said John Morse, president and publisher of Springfield,
Mass.-based Merriam-Webster.

“’Pragmatic’ is a word that describes a kind of quality that people
value in themselves but also look for in others, and look for in
policymakers and the activities of people around them,” Morse said.

A new feature on Merriam-Webster’s site allows users to tell the
dictionary publisher why they sought that specific word, and the
feedback from those who looked up “pragmatic” was that they wanted to
reaffirm that the connotation was positive.]

If John Morse were alert, he would have already responded to my
comment here. If he has not made the pragmatic assumption that words
mean what they say, and say what they mean. The word “pragmatic” may
have largely positive connotations in international relations, but if
you are applying to a university and characterize yourself as
“pragmatic,” some admissions tutors may be aware of the LRB
discussions on bureaucratic practices in universities, and give a
knowing smile.

I would not want to indicate that I just go with the flow and latch
onto “smart” words, a mimic-style man. Not only is m-w prepared to
mislead, the editors imagine that we will not check their data. In
Canada, we might look into it, while Americans will be satisfied with
SAT vocab flash cards.

A thought-provoking article is “RIM’s burning platform moment,” by
Matt Hartley in Saturday’s National Post. RIM exhibits a Reverse
Moore’s Law in that it is cheerfully paying the Canadian Obsolescence
Tax, prepared to spend a year and a half in traditional Canuck
confusion: it will not have enough BB10 devices on sale “withing 15
months.” Also, RIM acquired the QNX platform in April 2010, but even
now it is not “working out quite as well as RIM had hoped.” One of my
students mentioned that a lot of teenage girls in BC are to be seen
with BlackBerries. BBM seems to be in vogue with them. A good subject
for an analyst’s research note.

Chapter nine in John Sinclair’s COBUILD English Grammar is a brilliant
introduction to cohesion. An antidote to RIM incoherence. Its PlayBook
tablet still can’t “access cellular networks.”

In Matt Hartley’s FP story, we have frequent references to the memo
and the analyst’s research note. What would a lexicographer’s research
note on “pragmatic” say?

In Canada, we have to pay the heavy downstream costs of bad teaching
in English and French, of lapses in integrating tools in psychology,
such as Mark Ashcraft’s great “Cognition,” into Education faculties,
and of the chronic failure to produce anything other than a neophyte
philosopher’s treadmill in high school (IB ToK). Ontario, pay the
price. Your economy is shuddering. You cannot grasp that disarray in
grade four gets transmitted gently all down time’s stream. To emerge
just in time to wreck Ontario.

(I had one great English schoolteacher, in a one-room schoolhouse in
New Brunswick: Mrs. Brooks, in grade eight.)

Otherwise, it was a sad mess, in English and in French. “Grammar”
teaching was mindless. And is. I strongly recommend that Montreal and
Toronto, with help from Ottawa, cooperate with Paris and London on
comprehensive audits for value of practices in Canada’s official
languages, from January to June, 2012. The Office of Official
Languages must finally take these matters seriously. The Canadian
Language Benchmarks just will not do. You have to wonder whether the
Office even has an acceptable file on the immigrant-related
depredations outlined in Tamsin McMahon’s “‘Head Count’ Policy,” in
the weekend National Post.

We need to avoid unthinking assembly-line methods for our John
Sinclair Memorial English Commission. With even 10,000 hours working
and volunteering with school and first-year university students, it
should be easy to see that we have to assimilate the 20-year-old
corpus revolution in linguistics, the best books fairly obvious, the
very best the new COBUILD English Grammar, for testing for the next
six months in Canada in grades 10-12, and in first-year college and
university. (Instead of the silly little handbooks and American school
rhetoric trash cluttering up introductions to university English.)

Excellent Canadian companies such as Chapters, TD Canada Trust, and
London Drugs should provide leadership in buying books and other tools
for students studying the official languages. I have been using the
ASUS 1015PN Netbook for a year. It is an excellent writing platform,
only a little over $300. It should be the official student computer
for Canadian schools, for a test period of three years.

A good place to start, before Christmas, would be with the Waterloo
Region’s 120 schools. There will be a meeting of the Region’s Good
Schools Standing Committee on Wednesday, Dec. 21st, at 4. There should
be a discussion of “Waterloo-Enforced Official-Languages
Obsolescence,” and a determination to focus official languages issues
there in 2012. Let the Americans sleep over the holidays. Out of our
Waterloo, let a new age emerge.

A shining house on a shining hill. Ever onward and upward. More
British than the British. More French than the French.
“Uncompromising” is our Iron Lady 2012 word. We do not want to be
blinded by pragmatic assumptions. No more. No more. No more. Morse
code.
Posted on 12/20/2011
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