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July 7, 2005

Agonizing Corrections

Twice in the past month I have had the dishonor of posting major correction notices to NewStandard articles of which I functioned as primary editor. This is a particularly painful experience for me, as I'm something of a perfectionist and I simply despise admitting a mistake.

When we founded TNS, however, accuracy was foremost among our objectives. And we decided that prominent, embarrassing corrections posted to the top page for upwards of a week (depending on the severity of the error, in our view), would be the penalty (and public service) for screwing up on factual matters. The more egregious the mistake, the longer it remains a prominent feature of our home page.

Thankfully, we have made remarkably few errors, as far as we know. This year alone, we have published nearly 600 news stories and only had to issue 12 corrections -- most of them minor errors like wrong names, dates, etc. Meanwhile, our corporate counterparts would have no room for current news if they followed our rule of prominent, lingering corrections posted to their homepage, rather than buried somewhere.

Sometimes the correction turns into a bit of scoop. For instance, when a state government official in Maine called to chastise TNS for using the wrong version of a bill in a brief last month, we discovered something altogether unexpected and turned the correction into a whole new brief. The current version of the bill we wrongly reported was buried on the legislature's website, but when we finally found it -- as much as some of its more frightening aspects had disappeared -- another, more curious concern had appeared, which briefwriter Brendan Coyne cleverly reported.

Nevertheless, sometimes the correction is particularly painful, and the error seems inexcusable. A writer writes something he or she takes for granted or misunderstands, and the editor carelessly overlooks it, and the secondary editor assumes the primary editor checked the fact.

Once in a while a primary or secondary editor actually introduces an error -- in which case the journalist's name is associated with someone else's mistake. Those are undoubtedly the worst for us as editors. In any case, the main responsibility is that of the editors, since in the end it is our job to verify the factual accuracy of everything we publish, to the best of our ability.

The most recent error -- about privatization (or not) of Iraq's oil industry -- went a while and made the rounds of many websites before an astute reader brought it to our attention. More often, we hear within hours -- a day at the outset -- that we have made a mistake.


marcus99nd: Agonizing Corrections

It might be a good idea when posting a correction up front and center, to also link to the corrections policy. Maybe in smaller type so as not to distract from the main point -- the correction itself. But coming from an experience of corporate media, many readers might see that and just think, "woah, they screwed up pretty bad," and think the quality, carefulness, reliability, trustworthiness, etc. of the reporting here isn't as good as what you find on the advertiser-bribed pages of the bird cage liner. How ironic that would be!

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.