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Best practices in error reporting and corrections

How to do the right thing

Herewith, MediaBugs offers a brief list of recommendations intended for anyone publishing news or information, for profit or pleasure, online or off. (We're emphasizing the "online" part because that's generally where there's the most need for improvement.)

Most of these guidelines are common sense, and many of them are already common practice. We hope our friends in the media can use these recommendations as pointers for review of their current error-correction practices. For readers, our list can serve as a set of standards -- criteria you can use to assess any publisher's performance in the crucial area of accuracy.

  • Make it easy for readers to report mistakes to you

Readers who find errors or problems in news coverage are doing you a favor by taking the time to tell you about it. Don't put roadblocks in their way. Encourage them!

Readers will often turn to comments to post about an error they've found, but news organizations have a poor record of keeping up with those reports or responding to them. A "Contact us" link at the bottom or side of a page might seem to be enough, and it's certainly better than nothing. Unfortunately, some sites link their readers to a masthead page and expect them to figure out the right person to email or page to visit to provide an error report.

Some news sites feature "report a problem" links that turn out to be channels for technical help with the website, or for home delivery customer service. If a site has a "report a problem" page, it ought to feature prominent information telling readers how to report errors.  

A "Corrections" link is better, but on many sites this takes you to a page listing corrections that have already been made, rather than one that provides an opportunity to report a new error.

Ideally, there should be a dedicated link on every page that's specifically worded to indicate that it's for reporting errors:  We recommend "Report an error." Such a link can take readers to a feedback form, or provide a simple "mailto" email address. (It can also use the MediaBugs widget to serve a popup form.)

Whatever the mechanism used, what's most important is to attend to the reports. One reason it's better to have a single channel for incoming error reports rather than multiple different email accounts and submission forms is that it's easier for the newsroom to stay on top of them. 

  • Review and respond to all error reports

Error reports should be dealt with promptly. People who report errors to news organizations deserve to hear back from those organizations -- even in cases where the organization decides a correction (or clarification) isn't warranted. At MediaBugs we believe in a transparent, public discussion in such cases -- so that anyone else who thought an error had been made can understand why the  media outlet decided not to make a correction. But even if the exchange isn't going to be public, the person who reported the error ought to get a response of some kind. 

  • Make corrections forthright and accessible

When a news organization decides a correction is called for, the correction should be made as soon as possible. On the Web, the change needs to be made transparently. Any correction of substance should be mentioned in a note that appears at the top (best) or bottom of the article.

For sites that publish correction notices as separate items of content, each correction notice should link to the article that was corrected, and each corrected article should link to the correction notice. We recommend that news sites maintain an aggregated corrections page pulling together correction notices (or at least links to correction notices) from across all of a media site's sections and pages. This page should be directly accessible by one click from sitewide navigation bars in page headers or footers. Such pages are also ideal places to post correction policies and procedures for users to file error reports.  

Different news organizations have different policies defining what errors are significant enough to warrant correction notices. Many, for instance, fix small typographical errors without note. At MediaBugs we recommend that any fixes beyond the simplest typos be made in a way that leaves some sort of record. For simple misspellings and the like, many bloggers use the strikethrough strike-through rather than resort to a more formal correction notice, and that's a great approach.

  • Make fixing mistakes a priority

When news organizations fall down on the job of error response and correction, it's most often because the whole business of dealing with this stuff is handled as an afterthought. The work of putting out new stories always seems more important and more pressing than handling problems with old stories. While this is especially understandable today in professional newsrooms suffering staff and budget cuts, it's short-sighted and erodes readers' trust. Knowing that their reputations are on the line, responsible editors, reporters, bloggers and newsroom managers will always make dealing with error reports a priority. 

For the legal dimensions of error correction policies and the related issue of retraction requests, we recommend this page from the Citizen Media Law Project.

-- Scott Rosenberg and Mark Follman

See also: Hard to Get a Fix, MediaBugs' report on the state of corrections in Bay Area news media

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[Published 07/13/10.]