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Errors Published Online: To Fix or not to Fix

Posted on Wednesday, September 09, 2009 at 3:52 PM

What is the best course of action for online corrections? Do all edits require a correction notice?

By Meredith L. Dias

"We don't want to distract readers every time we fix a comma," said Salon.com co-founder Scott Rosenberg in an interview published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "On the other hand, we don't want the fact that it's easy to fix a Web page to give us an overly convenient cover on those occasions when we do screw up."

So what is the best course of action when you've printed a story online that contains grammatical, attribution, or even factual errors? Which mistakes require further comment? What corrections policy will best serve your readers?

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics states that "journalists should [. . .] admit mistakes and correct them promptly." There are some who interpret this literally, noting even the most minor grammatical errors. Others ignore the SPJ tenet completely and "scrub" their stories clean of significant errors without comment (i.e., delete or edit content without issuing a correction or retraction). Still others differentiate between minor technical errors and more substantial errors that require correction notices. One editor told us, "If it is a simple typo, we'll fix it without comment -- or delay." The editor adds, "If something was factually incorrect, including the spelling of someone's name, we will correct it in the current version, plus under the heading ‘Correction'."

Bloggers have adopted a simple solution for edits, one that facilitates both the admission of mistakes and prompt correction. When correcting errors, they strike through the erroneous text using their blog editor or simple HTML tags. In Newsless.org's "The Future of Corrections", Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow Matt Thompson reports that this has become a common, and accepted practice for blog writers. Strikethrough of faulty text promotes editorial transparency in a medium particularly easy to scrub clean of errors.

How should editors of online publications differentiate between innocuous errors and ones that require further comment? Recently, the Hartford Courant published a story entitled "Putnam Police Training Could Be At Fault For Woodstock Fair Shooting". The story was published online at 10:12 P.M. on August 31, and attracted two comments in response to the following sentence: "Because the pullet [sic] was travelling [sic] such little velocity when it struck the man, it may have passed through a berm or other structure intended to stop the bullets, Vance said." In response, "Susan5868" asked, "Does anyone proof read this stuff before publication?" Another reader, "phucer", replied simply, "Ugh."

The next day, September 1, the same article bore a new title: "Stray Bullet That Hit Man May Have Come From A Putnam Police Officer". In the revised article, the aforementioned sentence has undergone some cosmetic surgery: "Because the bullet was traveling at such a low velocity when it struck the man, it might have passed through a berm or other structure intended to stop the bullets, Vance said." All of these changes have been implemented without notice to the reader; however, "phucer" provides a link to the original, unedited article in the revised article's responses.

What can we learn from this? Most of the editors we contacted assert that errors of a typographical or grammatical persuasion do not warrant a correction notice; however, the reader response to the Courant article provides an interesting counterpoint to this editorial consensus. Though publications generally concur that grammatical tweaks can be scrubbed from the record without further comment, the response by "phucer" indicates that readers may be seeking transparency in even the simplest online edits.

When scrubbing grammatical or spelling errors from the record, editors ought to ask themselves: Will any readers be disadvantaged in the process? In the aforementioned ASNE article, Scott Rosenberg says, "You can fix an error and pretend you never made it. That rankles anyone who sees journalism as having a sense of history." Moreover, unacknowledged edits can introduce errors into the journalistic record. For instance, if a publication misspells President Obama's last name and edits without comment, this will do little to alter the historical record -- in context, even with the misspelling, the subject of the article will be clear. However, if a publication misspells an unknown person's name and later scrubs the mistake, this could alter the record if secondary sources have already attributed quotes and information to the erroneous name.

Recently, we contacted several dozen editors and publications on Twitter regarding their online corrections policies. Based on click-throughs to the web page containing our survey questions, there seems to be considerable interest in the topic. Only a handful responded, however. Are editors generally reluctant to discuss their online correction protocol? Or perhaps they have not yet developed cohesive policies.

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