Washington Post caught napping at imaginary intersection

Of this we can be certain: There is no such thing as the intersection of Mozart Place and 16th Street NW. These two Washington, D.C, thoroughfares in the Adams-Morgan area parallel each other.

So when people who knew the neighborhood read the Washington Post’s “Crime Scene” post on Aug. 12 about a homicide in the area, and saw a reference to such a location as the place where the victim was found, they knew something was wrong. In fact, the first three commenters on the story pointed out the mistake.

What happened next was that the Post quickly corrected the goof, noted the fix and moved on. Right?

If only. In fact, the error remains in the online version of the story as I write this, two weeks later. The comments pointing out the mistake sit at the end of the post, without any response or acknowledgment from the Post.

Bug Report

Chris Amico filed a bug about the error at MediaBugs, and we decided to handle it. (Right now we’re still primarily serving the San Francisco Bay Area.) We contacted the Post. Two emails and five days later, we got a response from Post deputy managing editor Milton Coleman.

Coleman said the paper planned to “set the record straight.” He also pointed out that since the reference to the non-existent intersection was made in a passage attributed to a police spokesman, technically the Post hadn’t actually made a mistake, and therefore the Post would publish a clarification, not a correction.

Four days after that, on Sat., Aug. 21, more than a week after the original mistake, the Post did publish a correction. Good luck finding it on the Post website, though. The paper does have a dedicated online corrections page, which is linked from the News menu in the top navigation bar. Yet the Mozart Place correction notice doesn’t show up on this listing. Meanwhile, there’s also a link to “corrections” in the footer of the Post website, but right now that link points — inexplicably and uselessly — to the corrections page for a single day two weeks ago.

So there is some correction confusion at the paper, and it’s not easy to find the Mozart Place correction notice. Which wouldn’t matter if the Post had bothered to correct the online version of the article (with a link to the correction notice). That, for whatever reason, has not happened yet.

Online First

Is this a really minor error? You bet — although it does matter to the people who posted comments about it at the Post site and who filed a report at MediaBugs. Don’t the editors of the Washington Post have more important stuff to worry about? Undoubtedly. That’s my point.

This isn’t a complex or politically charged issue requiring legal consultations or editorial huddles. It’s a simple matter of fact that’s verifiable in half a minute. The more that a news organization like the Post publishes brief, quick-hit items online, the more of this kind of error it’s likely to make. Why not streamline the process? The Post calls the Crime Scene report a blog; why can’t it function more like one?

Correcting an error of this magnitude shouldn’t require days of deliberation, the valuable time of a deputy managing editor, or concern over distinctions between “correction” and “clarification” that are meaningless to the public. It ought to be a simple matter to go in and fix the error on the website, as bloggers routinely do. And if the web editors want to keep this process accountable and transparent, as they should, all they have to do is make revisions to published content accessible. It can be done!

Web corrections ought to happen first; let print catch up. Instead, too often the leisurely gait of the print operation seems to hamstring the website from taking care of things.

When I discuss these ideas with newspaper managers, they usually agree in principle but then point to technical barriers. “Our content management system is so old and clunky,” they say. “We just can’t do it.”

That excuse might have been credible 15, 10, even 5 years ago. But it’s time to stop giving news organizations a pass on this account. They’ve had years to get their technological act together, to think about how to coordinate print and online in general and specifically in the corrections process. If they can’t do it today, it’s little wonder readers think that accuracy just isn’t their priority.

UPDATE August 27: At some point shortly after this post was published (or, conceivably, shortly before), the Washington Post edited the news item in question to remove the reference to the non-existent intersection. There’s no mention or record of the change on the page. (Although there is a reference to the item being “updated,” this notice has been on the page for roughly two weeks already.)

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