Publishing something wrong is a journalist’s worst nightmare, and rightly so. Errors can erode trust in the media, have serious consequences on individuals and groups, and undermine journalists’ main job to provide accurate and truthful information. Still, to err is human, especially in fast-paced newsrooms, and issuing appropriate corrections can limit damages.
Mistakes can take multiple forms, including typos, mis-quotes, misleading wording, defamatory statements, omissions or wrong facts. In 2012, a paper reported that in the United States, research over the past 70 years estimates 40% to 60% of newspapers articles contain errors of some sort.
Despite a lack of clear universal standards, most mainstream titles now have corrections and complaints policies. It is increasingly common, especially online, to see mistakes being rectified and reported in the comments, on social media or through a dedicated email address or website section.
Some of the most controversial cases from the past few months include what Poynter dubbed “the mother of all corrections,” which is 579 words covering 15 mistakes or inaccuracies in a Washington Post article that was published in July. Another example is The New York Times’ change to a front-page headline after backlash from readers, journalists and politicians.
The goal is to prevent errors altogether, however, that’s impossible. Therefore, journalists and editors need to think critically about promoting accountability and transparency by making corrections right.
Below journalists share strategies and experiences to handle mistakes, and make corrections.
Put a system in place
Laura Helmuth is the health and science editor at the Washington Post, and explains the paper’s correction policy: “We have a way for readers to report errors, and that system generates a report that gets sent to the editor of the piece, who is responsible for finding out whether it’s truly an error.”
If it was an error, the reporter generates a correction request that goes through multiple levels of approval and then is published. “We mark corrections on the online story and have a corrections box in print,” she says.
Helmuth has not had to deal with any major errors in the past few years, but she hasn’t been able to avoid “a misspelled name, an incorrect animal name, a directional error by the photographer or photo editor.”
Investigate and discuss
Jem Collins, founder and editor of Journo Resources, has been involved in editing pieces after publication as both a writer and editor. Her first tip is not to panic because, especially online, there's a lot of possibilities for rectifying something responsibly.
Having spent a lot of time putting together a complaint policy with the team in her last newsroom, she breaks down complaints into two different scenarios. One concerning small errors that can be changed without much of a discussion.
The other scenario is a complaint that calls into question the actual reporting. “[T]hat’s when we'd all have a sit down together and discuss it as a team – the writer, the editor, and anyone else in-house who might have some good insight,” she says.
In this case, the team goes through the story step by step, looking at the evidence: sources used, interview transcripts and more. For this reason, it’s imperative that reporters keep thorough records, including where they found data, audio files, notes and anything else used for a story.
“The last time this happened was about one of our long-reads,” Collins recalls. “[U]ltimately we decided that the reporting stacked up, so we made sure to reply [to who had made a complaint] with our full reasoning.”
If corrections had been necessary, they would have signposted them, she explains, or even published the correction as a standalone story. In any case, everyone involved with editorial would be informed, so the mistake wouldn't also be published on social media.
If a reader asks a freelancer to change something, Collins suggests keeping it short and sweet with the editor: “Don't send off a panicked email straight away — take some time to digest the facts so you're not asking them for multiple changes. One short email with a ‘sorry, I've made a small hiccup’ is much better.”
Issue an apology and chase misinformation
Last February, Bud Kennedy, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist, criticized the Republican Texas lieutenant governor, based on wrong information that had been reported by another newspaper. When he discovered the error, the original post was removed and Kennedy issued an apology column, and asked readers to help share it.
“It was something I would have done anytime in 30 years as a columnist. When you get something wrong, you explain to the readers and apologize,” he says, calling it an instinctive decision. It was a natural part of the relationship between him, as a columnist, and the audience.
“I have to keep readers' trust,” he adds. “When I'm wrong, I have to say so.”
Once the new column was published, the Star-Telegram’s audience team suggested sending a copy directly to everyone who had shared or retweeted the original column, Kennedy explains. It was a bold move, but had huge potential in the digital age.
Dan Gillmor, on Nieman Lab, described the decision as “the catalyst for an experiment in journalistic transparency that we believe has huge potential: moving corrections along the same social-media paths as the original error.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed Colin Porlezza and Stephan Russ-Mohl's "Getting the Facts Straight in a Digital Era: Journalistic Accuracy and Trustworthiness" paper.
Cristiana Bedei is a freelancer writes about gender, sexuality, women's rights, body image, mental health and more.