Warning: Declaration of ES_Text_Diff_Renderer::_lines($lines, $prefix, $class) should be compatible with Text_Diff_Renderer::_lines($lines, $prefix = ' ') in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-content/plugins/exploit-scanner/exploit-scanner.php on line 955
Scott Rosenberg — MediaBugs Blog

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

Warning: Illegal string offset 'output_key' in /nfs/c01/h08/mnt/31198/domains/mediabugs.org/html/blog/wp-includes/nav-menu.php on line 604

MediaBugs goes national

Effective immediately, MediaBugs is expanding its service to handle error reports about media coverage anywhere in the United States. Previously, we limited our work to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Wherever you are in the U.S., and wherever in the country you find a media organization that you think has made a correctable error, MediaBugs is now available for you to use to try to get those errors corrected. You file an error report; we’ll make sure the media outlet knows about it, and try to get someone to respond.

We’ve also made some important changes to our site, some to accommodate this expanded focus and others just because we think they’ll work better.

  • We’ve improved “Browse Bugs” features: Roll over the “Browse Bugs” link on our navigation bar, or click through to the “Browse Bugs” page, and you’ll see a new “Browse by region” feature and a US map. This will be an evolving interface to find bug reports and media outlets by location. Right now we’re featuring just a handful of population centers, but we expect the regional groupings to multiply as we receive bug reports from a wider area.
  • We’re collecting and presenting more data about each media organization. Visit our “Browse bugs by media outlet” page and you’ll now see a current readout of the number of bug reports (total filed and currently open) related to that news organization, along with information we’ve collected about its error-correction practices online. We intend this feature to provide a database of media error-correction information that will evolve over time, and we plan to offer more tools over the coming year for users to explore and use this data.
  • We’re featuring our new bookmarklet tool at the top of every page. The MediaBugs bookmarklet is a button you can install in your browser that gives you a MediaBugs error report form on any Web page. You can install it on most browsers (Firefox, Chrome, Safari for now) — just drag it from the top of our page right onto the toolbar. (Rename it something shorter if your toolbar’s already crowded!) Then click on the button any time you see an error on a media Web page, and you’ll get a MediaBugs report form that already has the page’s title/headline and URL in place.
  • We’ve reorganized our home page a bit to provide a box of latest MediaBugs-related headlines and to show the logos of the media outlets whose bug reports we’re featuring. We think this says to the visitor, a little more loudly, that MediaBugs is all about fixing the news!

We’ve got some more projects and features to roll out over the coming weeks — stay tuned.

Here at MediaBugs we’re excited about this expansion. We’ve found that a lot of the exchanges we’ve had introducing MediaBugs to people went something like this: The listener would say, “What a great idea! You know, just the other day I saw this really unfortunate error in the X News about Y” — where both X and Y lie outside the Bay Area. And we’d have to say, “That’s really interesting, but unfortunately we are only covering the Bay Area right now.” Everyone would look glum, and the conversation would move on.

Now, instead, we can say: Go for it — file that bug!

Report an Error Report an error

How to turn a paper of record into a website of record

Last week Arthur Brisbane, the new public editor of the New York Times, posted an illuminating exchange between a reader of the paper and one of its top editors.

The reader asked: What’s with the way stories change all the time on the website? “How does the newspaper of record handle this? I read something, and now poof, it’s gone without a trace.”

Jim Roberts, the paper’s associate managing editor, responded: “We are constantly refining what we publish online.” He added that the paper often”uses the final printed version as the final archived version that stays on the Web.” But not always! There are “many exceptions.”

The headline over the column reads “Revising the Newspaper of Record.” But what the exchange reveals is that, right now, there is no record of the newspaper of record. The Times is revising its copy online all the time. No doubt the vast majority of these “refinements” are trivial or uncontroversial. But some of them are likely substantial. (Here was one right on the edge that was filed at MediaBugs.) If I understand Times policy correctly, when a change fixes an outright error, it is supposed to be marked with a correction notice. But there’s no record of these changes, so the Times could be cutting corners here and we’d never know.

When I raise this issue I sometimes hear back some variation on “What’s the big deal? Wire services change their copy all the time. Newspapers have always revised stories from edition to edition. How’s the Web different?”

I’ll tell you how: When newspapers change a story from the early to the late edition, the early edition is still out there for people to read and compare. When you change a Web page, the older version disappears, unless you take active steps to save it.

That, of course, is precisely what the Times — along with every other news outlet that’s committed to accountability — ought to do. Whenever a published story is changed, the paper should make the previous versions available to its readers. (I’ve outlined this idea here, written about it more here, and there’s now a WordPress plugin to demonstrate it in action.)

Let the world see the changes. This is all published, public material; there’s nothing to hide. With this one change to its publishing practices online, the Times can make good on the promise of the old “paper of record” moniker and become a website of record — while giving itself real freedom to keep improving the stories it has already posted.

Here are some potential objections, and my responses:

(1) What about actual errors that you’ve corrected? Unless they’re libelous and there’s some legal need to take them down, you can leave the errors visible behind a “revised version link” — while clearly marking them as errors that have been corrected. This is the most foolproof way of keeping your correction process transparent and trustworthy. When material is removed for legal reasons, a note can indicate that.

(2) Why provide so much excess material to readers? Aren’t we all drowning in too much information already? You can hide the previous versions behind links, the way Wikipedia (or our WordPress plugin) does. Most readers will ignore them — except every now and then when they notice that something’s changed and they want to see why. The Web has more than enough “space” for this data; it’s all just files on disk drives or data in databases.

(3) What you ask for makes sense, but it’s a ton of work to make that sort of change on a website as complex as a major newspaper’s! Right. Sure. I don’t expect this to happen tomorrow. But it’s worth beginning to plan now. I’m firmly convinced that this is an essential “best practice” for trustworthy news publishing online. It will happen, eventually. Why not get the ball rolling?

UPDATE: Mahendra Palsule pointed me to his account of a situation last month where the Wall Street Journal’s modifications to live stories made it look as if it might have scrubbed a controversial quote from a story (though it hadn’t done that at all). In comments there, Zach Seward of the Journal’s online team mentions that the paper is discussing the revisions-display idea. Maybe a little healthy competition will get this practice adopted!

Report an Error Report an error

Slate: Don’t close that corrections window — open it all the way!

Craig Silverman had a fascinating column last week about changes that Slate has made in its corrections policy in the wake of an embarrassing dustup with Politico. Here’s Craig’s pithy summary of this bizarre Escher-esque episode (which I also wrote about at the time):

In July, Slate published an article that provided evidence that Politico was routinely scrubbing errors out of its stories without adding a correction or similar notice for readers. Slate’s story, of course, was noticed by many journalists and many of us, myself included, weighed in with criticism and reaction. Then the tables began to turn: Politico pointed out several mistakes in Slate’s reporting and, in the end, Slate admitted that its correction policy had a provision that allowed for it to scrub factual errors from stories without the addition of a correction. (Provided that the error was spotted within twenty-four hours of publication, and it was spotted by someone at Slate.) Pot, meet kettle.

Slate is not the only publication with a post-publication window for tinkering with stories. At MediaBugs, we keep encountering this issue — as with this bug filed about a New York Times story earlier this summer. If you read that discussion, you’ll see a Times editor admitting the paper made substantive changes (though not technically the correction of an outright error) to an article after it was posted on the Web. Does the Times have a window, like Slate’s, in which it considers it okay to alter published articles online? How about headlines? Both Slate and the Times have always been extra meticulous in thinking through their approach to corrections, yet this post-publication change policy is a problematic area for both.

As a result of the Slate-Politico fracas, Slate has now decided to close its 24-hour window. This seems to be the upright, ethical response. It’s plainly well-intentioned and carefully thought out. But I think it’s the wrong direction to go: it’s a step backwards. It continues the tradition of allowing the limitations of print-think to govern our online behavior. The Web lets us improve our stories after we publish them. Why should we tie our hands?

We do so, of course, out of a sense of accountability. We don’t want to seem to be pulling fast ones on our readers. We don’t want it to appear that we’re “scrubbing” the record, as Silverman puts it.

There is a simple solution to this problem: Throw open the windows — and keep them open! Let yourself make changes; just don’t hide them. The same technology that lets us keep tinkering with words we’ve published also lets us store and display every alteration we make.

Instead of agonizing over the duration of the period in which we allow ourselves to change an already-published story, we should just be transparent about all the post-publication changes we make. Let’s give readers the “history” of our articles the way Wikipedia shows all the changes to each of its pages. As James Bridle puts it: Everything should have a history button!

This achieves two useful goals at once: It frees your hand to keep improving your articles even after you’ve published them, which is one of the great advantages Web publishing offers over print; and it makes sure that your readers will never think you’re hiding anything from them. Most readers will never need or want to see the revisions you’ve made; they just want to read the current version of the story. But in the rare case that someone raises a question or a dispute about a change, the record will be public.

If and when there are major substantive errors that you need to correct, you can still go the whole distance and add a traditional correction notice to any page. But if you’re fixing small errors or little details that don’t warrant that, you wouldn’t have to bother.

The technical hurdles to such an approach are minimal; most modern content management systems store all the revisions to each story in a database anyway. There’s a small amount of design work in figuring out how to expose the revisions to your readers. But it’s not a hard problem. I’m already showing all my revisions here on this blog — just look at the bottom of the full-page version of this, or any, post. (And if you run WordPress, you can install the WordPress Post Revision Display plugin too if you like!)

I’m firmly convinced that over the next few years this practice will become as commonplace in online publishing as “print this page” buttons and comments. So my challenge to Slate, the Times, and every other online publisher is: why not become a leader in this realm? Stop closing your “windows.” Instead, open them up and show your changes.

Report an Error Report an error

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.)

Report an Error Report an error

Bloomberg: a scarlet-letter corrections policy?

One of the things we’re trying to accomplish with MediaBugs is to encourage a change in newsroom culture. Journalists are still often reluctant to admit error, or even discuss the possibility of a mistake, for fear that it undermines their authority. But today a growing number of them understand that accuracy is best served, and authority best preserved, by being more open about the correction process.

That is the attitude we’ve encountered at most of the Bay Area news institutions where we’ve demoed MediaBugs. Unfortunately, it’s not what we found at Bloomberg when we tried to obtain a response on behalf of blogger Josh Nelson, who’d filed an error report at MediaBugs about a Bloomberg story.

Nelson raised a specific and credible criticism about the headline and lead on a Bloomberg report based on a national poll. Bloomberg’s coverage, Nelson argued, didn’t accurately reflect the actual question that its pollsters had asked about the Obama administration’s ban on deepwater oil drilling in the Gulf. (The story and headline said that “Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama’s ban” on such drilling, but the poll asked about a general ban on all Gulf drilling, while Obama has placed a temporary hold on deepwater drilling.) Bloomberg, as we described recently, circled the wagons in response.

The news service, of course, has every right to “stand by its story.” But since Nelson has raised a reasonable question, Bloomberg’s public deserves a reasonable response. It would be useful for its readers — and its colleagues at publications like the San Francisco Chronicle, which reprinted the story — to hear from the editors why they disagree with Nelson. Apparently they believe their copy accurately reflects the poll they took, but they have yet to offer a substantive case explaining why.

Institutional behavior of this kind always leaves me scratching my head. A comment posted on our previous post on the Bloomberg bug over at the PBS MediaShift Idea Lab proposed an intriguing theory: A former Bloomberg journalist suggested that the company’s personnel policies came down so hard on employees who made errors that they were reluctant to admit them at all.

These standards, which are meant to make people super-careful before publishing a story, actually serve as a perverse incentive and cause people at all levels of the newsroom to resist correcting stories after they are published if there is any way to justify leaving the story as is.

This was, we thought, worth a follow-up, and so we contacted the commenter. He turned out to be Steven Bodzin, who’d worked as a reporter in San Francisco and Venezuela for Bloomberg for four years before leaving the company in March. My colleague Mark Follman spoke at length with Bodzin last week.

Bodzin said he “rarely saw complaints from the public get ignored.” He told us that Bloomberg’s culture is actually “hypersensitive” to public response but especially focused on issues raised by sources or by customers who subscribe to its terminal service (Bloomberg’s business was built on selling real-time market data to the financial industry over its own network — only later did it begin distributing news and information on public networks).

Bodzin described his own “prolific” first year as a Bloomberg correspondent, during which five of his stories were cited as exemplary in the company’s weekly internal reviews. He also had an unusually high number of corrections that year — which he attributed to the intense pace of the job — and got the message from his superiors that “you really have to bring that down.” He says that made him more careful. But he observed that the stigma that Bloomberg attached to corrections also encouraged a sort of silence in the newsroom in the face of potential problems.

Certainly there were situations where you realize something is wrong but you’re gonna say “I didn’t see that” or just forget about it.
At Bloomberg that’s considered a really serious offense … but at the same time, if you or nobody else mentions it … no harm no foul. I think it happens. One time a colleague of mine, who’d already had one correction that day, saw one and said to me: “I am Olympically burying this error.”

We asked Bodzin about the specific issue Josh Nelson raised about the drilling-ban poll.

They see this case as a question of interpretation, a judgment call — this is their own poll, a lot of reporters and editors are involved, so they [would all] get a correction. So they aren’t going to want to do it.

What we’re looking at here isn’t some revelation of blatantly irresponsible behavior but a subtler insight into the complex interplay of motivation inside a big organization. Bloomberg is hardly the only company where such a dynamic may be at work. What’s important is that the people who lead such institutions understand the need to change the dynamic — to rebalance the incentives inside their newsrooms.

Unfortunately, this incident suggests that Bloomberg’s culture today clings to the wagon-circling habit. As so much of the rest of the journalism field moves toward more open models, it remains an old-fashioned black-hole newsroom, happy to pump stories out to the world but unwilling to engage with that world when outsiders toss concerns back in. Bodzin explained, “Staffers aren’t supposed to talk to press at all — you’re supposed to send reporters to the PR department.”

And that’s exactly what we found when we tried to get comment from Bloomberg about the issues Bodzin raised. When we asked senior editors at Bloomberg to discuss their own policies and newsroom culture, they shunted us over to Ty Trippet, director of public relations for Bloomberg News, who wrote back:

Our policy is simple: If any Bloomberg News journalist is found to be hiding a mistake and is not transparent about it, their employment with Bloomberg is terminated.

So Bloomberg looks at a nuanced psychological question of newsroom behavior and responds with an “Apocalypse-Now”-style “terminate with extreme prejudice.” Doesn’t exactly give you confidence about the company’s ability to foster a culture of openness around the correction process.

Earlier this week Bloomberg announced the hire of Clark Hoyt — the Knight Ridder veteran who for the last three years served as the New York Times’ public editor. In that ombudsman-style role he served as a channel for public concerns about just the sort of issues we are raising here about Bloomberg.

Though Hoyt’s new management job at Bloomberg’s Washington bureau isn’t a public-editor role, it does put him squarely in the chain of command for stories like the oil-drilling poll. So maybe he’ll look into this, and also more generally at how Bloomberg handles public response to questions of accuracy. Right now, the company’s stance is one that hurts its reputation.

Report an Error Report an error

New report! New video! New widget partner!

Today we offer a cornucopia of newness for you:

  • Hard to Get a Fix is the first of what we plan as a regular series of reports on the error reporting and correction practices of Bay Area media organizations. You can read its findings here, and also read our recommendations for best practices in error reporting and corrections.
  • Today we also unveil “The Story of MediaBugs: As Told By Men in Shorts,” a new light video (now showing at the top of our home page) that our friends at Beep Show made for us, explaining what we do, how it all works, and what to do when the TSA mistakes you for a notorious flamingo smuggler.
  • You can now see the MediaBugs widget in action on every article published at Spot.Us, the pioneering community-funded journalism site. The widget lets you report errors and problems right from an article page, instead of having to visit our site directly. We think it’s the best way for news organizations and readers to use MediaBugs, and we’re working on getting it adopted more widely.

Report an Error Report an error

Journal’s Sarb-Ox goof, Kos’s flawed polls: New kinds of errors demand new kinds of corrections

Once upon a time in journalism, an error was a mistake in a story, and a correction was a notice published after the fact fixing the error. This kind of errror and correction still exists, but in the new world of news the error/correction cycle keeps mutating into interesting new forms.

Consider these two recent examples, one involving the Wall Street Journal and Twitter, the other involving Daily Kos and its polling program.

On Monday morning, decisions were pouring out of the U.S. Supreme Court and keeping reporters who deal with it very much on their toes. I noticed a flurry of comments on Twitter suggesting that the court had struck down Sarbanes-Oxley, the corporate-fraud bill passed nearly a decade ago in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. That struck me as odd, and so I clicked around till I found an AP story about the ruling, but that piece reported that only one tiny provision of the law had been overruled.

Eventually I traced the source of this confusion back to a single tweet from the Wall Street Journal’s Twitter account, announcing “BREAKING: Supreme Court strikes down Sarbanes-Oxley.” Twelve minutes later the Journal tweeted, “Only part of law is affected. We’ll have more.” Another 13 minutes later, the Journal quoted Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion as saying that Sarbanes-Oxley “remains fully operative as law.” So in 25 minutes the Journal did a 180.

Now, anyone trying to post breaking news to a service like Twitter is going to make mistakes. If you followed the Journal’s stream it was evident that the paper had simply goofed in its first take. (Felix Salmon takes them to task here, and Zach Seward, the Journal staffer who was manning the paper’s tweet-stream, responds in the comments.) How should a news organization deal with such a goof?

I’ll give the Journal half-credit: they re-reported a more accurate version of the news quickly. Their staff was forthright in explaining the situation in public on the Web. And they didn’t take the cowardly memory-hole route of simply deleting the erroneous tweet.

What the Journal never did, though, was simple admit the error as an error. This should not be so hard! The moment it became clear that the tweet was a mistake, the paper should have posted something along the lines of: “We goofed with our previous notice that Sarb-Ox was struck down”, along with a link to the tweet-in-error.

There is no good argument for not doing this. Embarrasment? Forget it, this is the ephemeral world of Twitter. Legal repercussions? If the paper is worried about lawsuits, it shouldn’t be attempting to distribute breaking news via Twitter at all. Reputation? That’s better protected by admitting error than by driving past it.

I think the Journal’s handling of this mistake reflects the imperfect efforts of an old-school newsroom to adapt its traditions to a new world. Next time something like this happens, and of course it will, let’s see how much the paper has learned.

For an example of how a new-school newsroom handles a much larger problem, take a look at Daily Kos’s dispute with the pollsters at Research 2000, which had been providing the popular liberal blog community with its own polling for some time.

A trio of “statistics wizards” uncovered some patterns in Research 2000’s data that suggested it was unreliable at best, fabricated at worst. Kos proprietor Markos Moulitsas didn’t just announce the problem; he published the entire statistics dissertation explaining the issue and posted a lengthy explanation of his own view of the affair.

The whole thing is highly embarrassing for Daily Kos. You can bet that any conventional news hierarchy would have done its best to hide the evidence, minimize the damage, and “stand by our story” as much as possible — particularly in light of the likely lawsuits down the road.

Kos instead throws the whole affair onto the table and declares war on his former polling partners. It’s not pretty, but in its own way it’s admirable.

[Cross-posted to my personal blog at Wordyard]

Report an Error Report an error

The Wall Street Journal: Cavalier about corrections?

Last week I wrote about my fruitless quest to alert the Wall Street Journal to a mistake it had made in a book review — misspelling the name of the author the piece mainly focused on.

Yesterday I made one final effort to close this loop; I emailed the book review’s author, Philip Delves Broughton. Broughton responded quickly and courteously, agreed that it was a mistake (one he’d been responsible for), and noted that as a freelance contributor all he could do was notify the book review’s editor.

As of today this mistake, now 11 days old, remains uncorrected. In the face of my persistent and no doubt annoying barrage of emails, phone calls, and blog posts, the Journal newsroom has remained entirely mum.

Now, there are a few ways to read this situation. You could say: Who cares? It’s just a misspelling of somebody’s name.

If it’s your name, of course, you may care a great deal. If you’re the author, you might care not just for vanity, but for the sake of the people who might be Googling your writing or looking your book up to purchase it on Amazon.

In this case, the author, Mac McClelland, happens, right now, to be doing some on-the-ground reporting from the Gulf oil spill for Mother Jones. If you were her, you might want readers to connect the book review with the in-the-news byline.

So another possible response is: The Journal’s editors and reporters are very busy people. They’ve got financial meltdowns to cover. Why are you harassing them with this trivia?

That’s just fine — unless the Journal actually cares whether its readers trust its coverage. If a news outlet can’t be bothered to get an author’s name right, can you count on it to get the financial stories right?

I’m sorry, but none of these responses is adequate. Until and unless we get a more plausible response, the only interpretation that makes sense is a very sad one: that the Wall Street Journal, once one of the world’s great trusted news institutions, lacks a functioning correction process. Or it simply doesn’t care about sweating the details any more.

UPDATE: This post is now linked to from Romenesko, and the very first comment there provides a nice illustration of my argument. Mark Jackson writes, “Really? This is a big deal to you? Column inches. Limited space. Priorities. Possibly the world financial system crashing was a bigger issue? Just sayin’.”

It seems to me that the Journal has every right to say, “We no longer have the resources to fix small errors like misspelled names. You should no longer count on us getting that stuff right.”

Something tells me no editor at the paper is likely to say that. Because when most of us signed on as journalists we signed on for the small stuff too. And readers expect that — and expect some kind of response from the newsroom when they point out an error.

[Crossposted at my personal blog at Wordyard.com]

Report an Error Report an error

How hard is it to report an error to the Wall Street Journal? Hard.

The correction process is a simple thing in most newsrooms, right? If the news outlet gets something wrong, people will tell the editors — they’ll email or call or post a comment on the website. And then the editors will correct the mistake.

End of story? If only.

One of the early field results of the MediaBugs experiment is a simple one. It turns out that, in the case of many news organizations, including some pretty prominent ones, just figuring out how to tell the newsroom that there’s a problem requires persistence and stamina.

Consider this anonymous error report we received at MediaBugs a few days ago. It said that the Wall Street Journal, in a recent book review, had misspelled the name of the author being reviewed. The book is Mac McClelland’s For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. The Journal spelled her name “McLelland.” (The publisher’s page listing the book, which I’ll take as an authoritative source, spells it with the extra “c.”)

Now, MediaBugs is focused on Bay Area-based news organizations and coverage, and — while we’ll handle reports that focus on the Journal’s Bay Area coverage — we’re not going to deal with most of the paper’s content. So we marked the McClelland report “off topic.”

But I figured that it did seem to be a real mistake, albeit a small one (but not that small, unless you think misspelling the name of the central subject of an article is not a big deal). If I were an editor at the Journal I’d want to know about it and correct it. So as a courtesy I set out to inform the newspaper.

My first stop was the story’s comments, where I thought I’d just post the information and let the Journal editors glean it at their leisure. The page had zero comments, so I figured my note would not be lost in a sea of rants.

I wrote a brief note about the problem, then discovered that I would need to register at the Journal site before they’d accept my comment. So I registered and confirmed my email address, re-entered my comment, and clicked “post.” Nothing happened. I tried again with a different browser, guessing that there might be some browser-specific posting bug. No luck with either Firefox or Safari. No wonder the story has zero comments! So much for that feedback channel. (To try to figure out what the problem was, I took a look at the next day’s Journal books piece. It had five comments — so sometimes, I guess, the comments work. Interestingly, these comments reported errors in that review: it contained impossible, self-contradictory dates. These errors were reported five days ago. The piece has not been corrected.)

For my second approach, I looked for some link on the Journal site for “corrections” or “report an error.” No such link exists on the Journal home page, nor did searching voluminous “Help” and “Customer Service” pages turn up anything. The “Contact us” page offers three general email addresses for feedback, labeled as follows:

Send a comment/inquiry about an article or feature in The Wall Street Journal to: wsjcontact@dowjones.com.

React to something you’ve read on WSJ.com at: newseditors@wsj.com.

Offer a comment/suggestion about features and content on WSJ.com at: feedback@wsj.com.

I challenge anyone who is not a part of the WSJ organization to interpret which of these three lines of inquiry would be an appropriate choice to report an error. Apparently there’s a distinction between responding to the print and Web editions of the Journal, but what about with stories that appear in both places, as is the case for so much Journal content? And what are we supposed to make of the distinction between “reacting to something you’ve read” and “offering a comment/suggestion about features and content”?

I opted for door number one, since I was reporting a mistake in the printed Journal and that seemed to be the choice relating to the newspaper as opposed to Web-only material. But plainly I was grasping at straws. I sent a polite note to the wsjcontact address, and copied it for good measure to the managing and executive editors’ addresses that were also listed on the Contact page. This was two days ago.

For my third effort, I resorted to the good old telephone. The Journal only lists a single phone number on its Contact page, so I called it. It turns out to be an automated inbox for the entire Dow Jones operation. So you walk your way through the voice menu patiently, only to end up at a recording that tells you there’s no one to receive your call but you’re welcome to leave a message.

So that’s what I just did. I will now rest from my labors. We’ll see if any of these efforts elicits a response, or whether this post somehow prods the Journal beast from its slumber.

I went to these lengths because, right now, this is my work. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about normal members of the public. They won’t jump through these hoops. They will conclude — rightly or wrongly but very understandably, either way — that the newsroom doesn’t actually care about hearing about its mistakes.

If we want to understand why people don’t trust the media, this might be a very good place to start.

[Crossposted to my personal blog at Wordyard.]

Report an Error Report an error

When reporting an error in the comments is not enough

Our public beta of MediaBugs.org has been open for about three weeks now. We’re still tinkering with our interface, coping with problems at our Internet service provider, and working on plans to increase participation. But we’ve already got some fascinating results from our experiment.

Here’s what I think is the most interesting one so far: The first two errors that we helped get corrected were (1) a listing in the East Bay Express that provided the wrong location for a theater event; and (2) a reference in a TechCrunch story to the wrong police department. In both of these cases, the problem had already been reported to the media outlets in question — in their own comments.

Neither error was earth-shattering, but neither was as trivial as, say, a simple typographical error. Yet the comments reporting the mistakes had sat on these websites for days (in one of the cases, over a week) without either a response or a correction. In each case, it took additional steps to get the newsroom to put fixing the error at the front of its to-do list: First, someone had to file an error report with MedisBugs (OK, in one case it was me!); then, we contacted the news outlet directly and asked for a response.

I bring these particulars up not to shame the news organizations involved, each of which handled itself professionally and responsively, but rather to underscore a point that many of us still don’t realize: Even though most journalists aim to get facts right and to fix things when they don’t, actually getting a news organization to respond and make a correction often takes a lot more effort than it should.

There’s bureaucratic inertia to be overcome. There’s every newsroom’s tendency to focus on tomorrow’s story and not devote a lot of time and thought to yesterday’s. There’s the simple fact that most newsrooms today have fewer and fewer employees. And there’s also, occasionally, the journalist’s hope that if he ignores a complaint long enough, it might just go away.

Now, two error reports is hardly a good sample size, and we’ll need more data before trying to draw any definitive conclusions. For now, what we have is some anecdotal support for what was one of the assumptions behind MediaBugs from the beginning: That the feedback loop between news producers and the public need to be made much more efficient.

Media outlets have opened the door to comments on their websites, but these discussion threads turn out not to be a very good channel for getting the outlet’s attention and motivate it to fix a mistake. If, as we believe, fixing mistakes promptly and prominently is one of the keys to restoring public trust in news media, then MediaBugs can play a useful role by tightening up those feedback loops.

[this post crossposted from PBS MediaShift IdeaLab, which we contribute to]

Report an Error Report an error