How transparent are your online correction policies?

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Twenty years into the Web, you’d think publishers would have figured out the best way to handle online corrections by now. But the issue of how to acknowledge and correct mistakes remains problematic for many of us.

Two recent retractions caught my eye. The first was from Reuters. Poynter’s Steve Myers reported yesterday that Reuters is changing its policy on retractions after it removed a published column in which the author incorrectly stated that News Corp. had received $4.8 billion in tax refunds over the past four years. After readers pointed out the mistake, Reuters published an advisory and, shortly thereafter, a follow-up column from the author explaining the error. But Reuters deleted the original post – a no-no among most media watchdogs.

Reuters Op-Ed editor James Ledbetter told Poynter that under the new policy going forward, the original post will remain, with whatever advisories or strike-throughs are required to correct the error. “I think it stands as a transparent record of what occurred,” Ledbetter told Poynter. “I think to take it down – while I can see some argument for that – it’s not being fully transparent with our readers about the process, and it could be subject to abuse.”

The second notable example comes from UBM TechWeb’s recently re-launched Byte brand. The tech site published an extraordinary retraction last month of a post that criticized Apple. After readers howled in the post’s comments section about the author’s credibility and conclusions, Byte responded by striking through the entire original post (!) and adding a lengthy editors’ note explaining its decision, which I’ve excerpted here:

The opinion column that follows doesn't live up to the proud tradition and our best intentions for BYTE. It not only lacks the deep and authoritative technical content that we want BYTE to be known for, but it also doesn't reflect the community's views on Apple. …

BYTE strives for authority above all, in keeping with the highest journalistic standards. That standard was not met here.

Because the Internet has a lasting memory, and in the spirit of transparency, we've decided to keep this column up, strike through its content (as seen below), and issue this mea culpa. We want to own up to our mistake, but not try to cover our tracks.

By doing so, we are acknowledging the feedback from the community (see the comments at the end of the post). We agree with the community that publishing this story was an error in judgment, exacerbated by the fact that it appeared during the first day of BYTE's re-launch.

Even in our "beta" mode, we will redouble our efforts to employ even tighter controls in our editing content before it gets published. We hope you find the rest of our content up to the standards you expect from BYTE, and that you will continue to provide us with feedback. We're listening.

  

These two examples – one to correct factual errors, the other in response to a community revolt over an author’s stated opinion – highlight the challenges that online corrections provide to media companies.

At least Reuters and Byte were proactive in addressing their mistakes. Some media sites simply continue to ignore the issue. CJR’s Justin Martin points out that many global news organizations, including The Economist, “have neither visible corrections pages nor prominent corrections policies.” (Full disclosure: eMediaVitals, alas, also lacks a published corrections policy – I’m working on that.)

MediaBugs’ Scott Rosenberg says there are four primary obstacles that keep some media sites from deploying more robust correction policies and procedures. From his post:

(1) Workflow and tools: In many newsrooms, especially those still feeding print or broadcast outlets, it’s still way too hard to fix errors or add links to a story for its Web edition. And content-management systems don’t yet offer corrections and history tools “out of the box.”

(2) Denial and avoidance: Other people make errors. Many editors and reporters don’t believe the problem is serious, or think it doesn’t apply to them. And most don’t understand how badly their Web feedback loop is broken.

(3) Fear of readers: Many journalists view readers as adversaries. The customer they feel they’re serving is an abstraction; the specific reader with a complaint is “someone with an agenda” whom they have a duty to ignore.

(4) Where’s the money? Many media companies are in financial free-fall. Correction systems and trust-building tools don’t bring in revenue directly, and they eat up product-development time and money.

My sense is that Nos. 2 and 3 are becoming less of an issue as journalists get more comfortable with the concepts of instant feedback and social sharing. As for Nos. 1 and 4, some tools are emerging to make reporting and managing corrections easier. For example, the Report an Error Alliance, launched last fall, offers a “report an error” button that publishers can install to give readers a quick method to point out mistakes. The use of versioning systems to track story revisions – and make previous versions accessible to readers – is gaining proponents as a practical way to add more transparency to error corrections.

While technology solutions will help, a good corrections policy really is more about common sense. If you want to build and maintain trust with your audience, you need to be able to quickly and thoroughly address the mistakes that inevitably occur. You don’t need a tool to do that – just a stronger commitment to transparency.

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