Fixing our mistakes, in public

by | May 4, 2020 | Blog | 0 comments

We outline the current state of corrections “policies” in news media.

When Slate, one of the longest-operating online publications, discovers an error in its coverage, it corrects the mistake in a way that leaves no doubt what occurred. Slate fixes the error, adds an asterisk(*) next to the changed text, amends the details of the mistake and adds the correction at the bottom of the article.

Slate’s approach is one of many ways that journalism organizations are making corrections more effective. What these practices tend to have in common is transparency, and they are moving corrections — and newsrooms — into a web-savvy and reader-friendly era.

The News Co/Lab, as part of its ongoing project to bring corrections more firmly into the 21st Century, has collected corrections policies from many top newsrooms. We found some common ways that news organizations fix their mistakes, and some outliers, detailed below. 

What is a corrections policy?
At its foundation, a corrections policy is a media organization’s plan of action when an incorrect piece of information is published. However, many news outlets do not publish a “policy” in the way that we hoped and expected: heavy in detail and easily accessible to readers.

The reality: A news outlet’s public-facing corrections statement is often simply a way for the public to report a correction, usually through an email address or form. A media organization may have a more detailed corrections policy that outlines 1. Standards for what warrants a correction and 2. The process to issue the correction. But those explanations are generally not available to the public. Instead, they are passed along through an internal guide.

Sometimes, instead of explaining its process in detail, a news organization will post its intention to correct errors and then offer a way to report them, usually through an email address or form. Some organizations do have detailed policies that include standards for what warrants a correction and the process the newsroom must follow to issue it — but instead of making those details available to the public, they are available only to the staff.

Where are corrections policies published?

Media organizations may have a “corrections and clarifications” summary, part of a policies and standards page. This summary could be a couple sentences, describing when an article will be corrected; that corrections are posted as soon as possible, and how readers can submit a correction. Most outlets do not have a dedicated corrections page of their website.

What’s worth a correction?

Most of the news organizations we looked at did not publish a correction if the correction was considered minor and fixed the same day the article was published. Typically, a correction is issued for the misspelling of names and incorrect dates or locations — details that don’t fundamentally change the meaning of the overall story.

Where are corrections placed?

Every outlet monitored in our research put corrections at the bottom of the article. Editors correct the misstatement and place an explanation at the end of the article. This is ubiquitous throughout the industry. (Slate adds to this model and embeds asterisks where mistakes previously were in the story.)

Is an “Editor’s Note” a correction?

Editor’s notes are less common, and usually appear in situations where major problems are evident. They tend to be added to resolve serious issues of nuance, tone or context within a piece. Rarely, an extremely problematic article may be replaced with an editor’s note to better explain the situation and what went wrong (see examples at CNN and Rolling Stone).

How long before outlets issue a correction?

Most outlets correct a mistake within the first 24 hours of publishing. Nearly all of the corrections we looked at show corrections made within a week. 

How can the public notify an outlet about a correction?

Outlets typically have two avenues of receiving tips for corrections. The most common is a dedicated email and/or phone number for readers to contact if they notice something wrong. 

The other common form of receiving corrections from readers is through an online form. At Vox, users must choose their reason for contacting Vox in a scroll down menu, write a short summary of their issue, provide contact information and pass a reCaptcha test to avoid bots. 

How do outlets publish corrections on social media?

News organizations largely do not view social media as a place to issue corrections. Only two news outlets we researched, the Toronto Star and the New York Times, have a dedicated social media page for issuing corrections. 

It’s also rare to see corrections issued from the official social media account of a news organization unless it provides a major update to a breaking news story. (In viral breaking news stories, tweets highlighting erroneous information are often deleted to avoid spreading more misinformation. The majority of corrections issued online are from journalists correcting themselves. 

Noteworthy corrections practices

A thorough, public corrections policy — and openly sharing those corrections — can be a useful, important tool to build audience trust. In our research, we identified four ways organizations are creating more transparent corrections practices.  

1. Write a weekly corrections round-up column.

Slate, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Toronto Star all have a dedicated page on their website where all corrections can be found, either in a “weekly round-up” style list, or a daily list of corrections. 

2. Annotate corrections in-text.

As noted above, Slate has a unique practice of adding an asterisk in place of an error. In a story covering the bankruptcy of the Boy Scouts of America, a writer misstated that the Scouts had assets worth just $50,000. After noticing the error, Slate corrected the information (the Boy Scouts of America have $1 billion to $10 billion in assets) and added an asterisk in place of the error. This form of transparency acknowledges the former mistake while limiting the spread of misinformation. Additionally, it doesn’t surprise any readers when they get to the end of the article and find there was a correction.

3. Create a separate social media platform for corrections. 

The Toronto Star has a separate Twitter page dealing with corrections. This is uncommon among the outlets we looked at. Each time there is a correction, the account tweets a link, which takes the user to the Star’s corrections page. Periodically, the account posts a column about the Star’s inner workings and editorial practices. 

4. Publicly explain the full corrections process.

Several news organizations with detailed corrections policies posted a lengthy, strict set of processes to fix errors. Gannett and the Associated Press are both great examples of this. Here are the steps: immediate notification to superiors, determination with editors to whether a correction should be made, restatement of the error in the correction section at the end of the article, acknowledging where the fault lies for the correction, clarifying the incorrect statement, and dating the correction’s time. As an aside, providing the audience with the ability to see the corrections policy helps readers to understand how newspapers work. 

 

How the News Co/Lab is gathering corrections policy information

The News Co/Lab held a corrections convening in November to talk through how to make corrections more wide-reaching in today’s digital world. Before the meeting, we asked the participating news outlets to share their corrections policies with us. From there, we located publicly available policies online. Not all were listed, however. In some cases, we reached out to a news outlet’s public editor, who provided a more detailed internal policy. For this document, we looked at about 20 policies. 

As we collect more corrections policies and analyze them, we’ll list what appear to be best practices. Then, working with our newsroom partners, we’ll draft a sample corrections policy document. We hope this resource can be a starting point for media organizations looking to bolster their corrections practices. We hope to offer ideas on various kinds of corrections and how best to handle them, considering issues such as where to put them in articles; how to annotate, where a policy should be in a website; and how to handle social media corrections.

This remains a work in progress, and we encourage you to share policies with us. We’ve created a spreadsheet of collected policies. Please let us know if we can add yours. 

 

Public corrections policies

Below are the full corrections policies from our initiative partners.