Getting it right about being wrong

Being a reporter, I’m also human (despite what some like to think). That means that every once in a while, I make a mistake. It sucks every time, but there’s different ways to fix it.

In my opinion the news organizations that fix mistakes in a transparent way are the most adept. Newspapers have been running a “corrections” section forever, but on the web that’s not really good enough. Newspapers are on shaky enough ground (right, so you’re supposed to have the paper from yesterday or the day before laying around, then cross-reference it with the corrected part, figure out which paragraph it effects and then wrap your mind around what that means. Have fun trying to get those 8 minutes of your life back.)

Thanks to jollyUK for licensing this under Creative Commons on Flickr.

When it comes to the online world, I’m a big fan of Slate‘s corrections policy. They generally reference a mistake at the bottom story in an editor’s note type of thing, and then link you back to the corrected sentence. I do web work. I know that whole anchor/flag in the text concept is annoying. But as a reader, it’s very nice to not have to figure out where the mistake originally appeared.

The second thing they do right is aggregate their mistakes in one place. In case you need to quickly reference a correction, it’s there. If you’re on the offended/misquoted end, you can furiously refresh your browser on that page until it tells you what’s changed where.

At my news organization, we’ve struggled a little bit with that sort of consistency. One editor pointed out a couple weeks ago that sometimes we run a correction but don’t correct the actual story. We also have what I think is an important line between what we announce as a correction and what we don’t. For instance, if I’m scrolling through a published story and realize a typo’s gotten though, I fix it on the back end and don’t do anything else. It’s different if I get a call from someone pointing out my math is wrong — that warrants an ASAP correction along with a correction run in the next edition.

Sometimes when people are mad about small things (“I wouldn’t quite describe that advocacy organization as progressive like you did in your story…”) it makes the most sense to either stand by your words or, if they have concrete evidence to the contrary, just change it in the story. For me, this applies most often to things that don’t at all change the meaning of a story.

I think what’s really bad is when news organizations correct something essential without mentioning it. It’s very frustrating to send someone an article and then find out that what’s up at that link now is different from what you’d forwarded them. We do a good job avoiding that kind of frustrating run-around.

In any case, I’m proud to say I haven’t had to correct anything in a month or so. I’m not sure if it’s the “bad things happen in threes” logic or what, but it seems to come and go in waves.

I think my biggest personal gaffe was quoting Michigan’s Director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development as saying one of this collegue’s ideas was “immature” instead of “premature.” This was how it was in my notes and everything, but I should have realized it was extremely out of character as I was typing things up. I just misheard. Every once in a while they’ll still tease me about it at Ag Commission meetings, but I try to keep it and all mistakes in a certain perspective; they’re OK if you put the right kind of band-aid on them.

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