Tuesday, June 3, 2014

PLACEMENT OF CORRECTIONS IS AS IMPORTANT AS PUBLISHING THEM

In the latest post on his media blog, "The Buttry Diary," under the headline "Corrections should be accurate, not misleading," my friend Steve Buttry has an interesting discussion regarding just how transparent the corrections most newspapers run should be. His position essentially is that they should be as transparent as possible, short of creating a finger pointing blame list or giving the name of the person or persons responsible for the error that required correcting.

Since I am pretty much in full agreement with what Steve has to say in the post, I want to avoid a repetitive, me tooish discussion. So, I suggest that you read his post. Here is the link: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/corrections-should-be-accurate-never-misleading/

Buttry notes that the genesis of this post was a Twitter discussion about corrections that I guess I entirely missed. To be honest, since my retirement a little over a year ago from my position as editor of The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, I am not as connected on a daily basis with newspaper industry discussions as I used to be. So, after reading Steve's post, I did some "research" into the discussion on Twitter and on other media-related blogs to bring myself up to speed.

Basically, the discussion involves two points of view.

As simplistically as I can put it, one of those points of view holds that when there is a mistake, it is the newspaper's and everyone essentially shares the blame. This is represented in corrections that are written something like this: "In a story published in Tuesday's Daily Bladder it was incorrectly stated that the mayor is dead. In fact, he is alive. The newspaper regrets the error." Blame is laid at no one in particular's doorstep, but the reader's natural assumption is that the reporter screwed the pooch.

The other point of view -- again as simplistically as I can state it -- acknowledges that when readers, who really don't know a whole lot about the internal processes of a newsroom, see a correction, they automatically assume the mistake was made by the person whose byline appeared on the story. Those who ascribe to this point of view -- including me and, apparently, Buttry -- believe that allowing readers to make that assumption when the error might not have been the reporter's fault creates an inaccuracy and is unfair to the reporter. In accordance with this school of thought, that same correction might be written this way if the error was made by the reporter: "In a story published in Tuesday's Daily Bladder it was incorrectly stated, due to a reporting error, that the mayor is dead. In fact, he is alive. The newspaper regrets the error." If the error had been created by an assigning editor or a copy editor while editing the story, the correction might read like this: "In a story published in Tuesday's Daily Bladder it was incorrectly stated, due to an editing error, that the mayor is dead. In fact, he is alive. The newspaper regrets the error."

Frankly, there is not really anything new in the discussion of these two differing points of view regarding how to structure a correction and the assigning of blame. It's been debated within the newspaper industry for decades.

However, what seems to be rarely discussed -- and is totally missing from the current back and forth -- is something that I think is every bit as important as publishing corrections and that is WHERE in the newspaper corrections appear.

Regardless of where they land philosophically on the issue of assigning blame for mistakes, most reputable newspapers believe they must correct them as a matter of preserving their credibility with both readers and news sources and do so, usually, in some anchored position inside the newspaper where readers can grow accustomed to regularly look for them.

This is good, but I don't think it's good enough for every error a newspaper makes.

Again, this is pretty simplistic, but I've always felt there are two basic categories of newspaper errors. First, there is what I regard as the "standard" errors which include things like name misspellings; correct last name, wrong first name; misattributions; pied type; typos; wrong addresses; and any other mistake that does not alter or change the gist or meaning of a story. The other category is any of a variety of what I'll call "HOLY CRAP, WE DIDN'T REALLY TO DO THAT" mistakes that are serious errors in fact that can adversely impact the truth or credibility of the story and may even go so far as being libelous. Such mistakes can occur even in connection with the most seemingly routine stories and can appear anywhere in a paper from deep inside to a main display page like Page 1, or the local, features, sports or business front.

Such errors absolutely should and must be corrected whether they are noted by a staffer, by a reader or by a news source who may have been the subject -- or victim -- of the error. Some newspapers may choose to run these needed corrections as part of their anchored list of standard "We Were Wrongs."

That might be considered "good enough" placement for the correction of even an egregious error in a story that appeared inside the paper since we train readers to look for corrections in those anchored spots. However, it's my belief that it isn't good enough for a serious error in a story that appears on a main display page.

I think, for instance, that if you erroneously report the mayor dead in a story appearing on Page 1, you need to correct it prominently on the same display page where it appeared. It's a matter of accuracy, of fairness and of the newspaper's credibility with readers and sources who frequently -- and often justifiably -- complain that we, like bad surgeons, tend to bury our worst mistakes.

If you get it egregiously wrong on Page 1, you need to set it straight on Page 1. To not do so could make it appear to readers and to the news sources used in the gathering of information for the story as though the paper is trying to hide or minimize its bonehead error in a story that was given prominent play. It's as much a matter of transparency as making it clear in the correction where in the process the error crept into the story.

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