Policy vs. Reality in Correcting Errors

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 7, 2006

The Washington Post is committed to correcting all errors that appear in the newspaper, just as we are committed to the kind of careful journalism that will minimize the number of errors we print. Preventing and correcting mistakes are two sides of the coin of our realm: accuracy. Accuracy is our goal, and candor is our defense.

-- The Post Stylebook

A newspaper's credibility depends on its accuracy. If a reader sees a neighbor's name misspelled, a co-worker's address garbled or a mistake in a team's box score, it taints the paper's reputation. If the paper can't get small things right, how can it be trusted on big things? That's why it's so important that all errors are corrected promptly and willingly.

The Jayson Blair episode at the New York Times prompted The Post to make its corrections process more efficient and the paper more accountable, which is admirable. A corrections database was started in September 2004. Monthly reports show how many corrections are published by each section and where the mistakes originated. In 2005 The Post ran 1,322 corrections -- about 110 a month. The editorial pages separately printed 26 corrections and two clarifications last year.

Most corrections, except for those of the editorial pages and the Extras, run on Page A2, which also occasionally includes a notice telling readers that they can contact corrections@washpost.com or the ombudsman, or telephone The Post at 202-334-6000 and ask to be directed to a particular desk -- such as National, Metro or Sports -- to make a complaint.

This is good as far as it goes, but The Post needs to make it easier for readers to request and find corrections. That information box on Page A2 appears sometimes but not often. There sometimes doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency in making corrections. The standards for corrections differ from desk to desk -- not hugely but enough to be troublesome. There is no appeals process for readers if an editor turns down a request.

Watching the corrections process during a career in journalism has led me to one conclusion: Journalists are often thin-skinned and resist corrections. I've been guilty of that myself.

To make its system more accountable, The Post needs a corrections overseer who would act as an appeals court judge and sign off on all corrections -- and who would see what correction requests were rejected. That would ensure a more uniform standard. Many newspapers that have ombudsmen or public editors as employees use that avenue for corrections. The Post's ombudsman has always been an independent contractor -- a system I like -- and it is more appropriate for a top editor to be in charge of corrections.

Though it would go against Post policy, putting all corrections on Page A2 would be the best thing for readers. Executive Editor Len Downie believes in "complete separation" of news and editorial pages. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said, "I think our correcting our own errors is a useful manifestation of the separation between us and news, and also makes it harder for us to hide our mistakes, which is healthy if sometimes painful." But he wouldn't be bothered by also having them on Page A2. The Reliable Source corrected an error in both the column and on Page A2 last week. The important thing is to make it easy for readers to find corrections.

Corrections also need to be published sooner. Usually, there's a backlog of corrections, as many as 20, waiting to get in. My own experience taught me that waiting to correct mistakes is, well, a mistake. I made an error in January. Because my column runs on the editorial page, I could not correct the error on Page A2. A correction ran the following Thursday on The Post's Web site and my next column acknowledged the mistake. I should have pushed for an A2 or editorial page correction the day after the original column.

One recent example shows how long it can take. I got a letter from the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative in March complaining about a story published in December. NOVEC said it had written two letters to a former Metro editor still listed on The Post Web site. The editor said he hadn't gotten either letter, though the reporter was copied on one. After NOVEC wrote me, the letter languished on my desk for a while before I took it to Metro's Virginia desk.

The December story said the cooperative's reliability "was on a par" with other electric utilities in the region, according to state records. Some other statistics indicate that NOVEC's outages were shorter than those of Pepco or Dominion Virginia Power. A clarification was written, but it took another 10 days before it appeared this week -- too darned long all the way around.

What doesn't get corrected? Simple typos and misspellings (other than names), grammatical errors and mistakes in sports standings. Mistakes in standings will be corrected in the next day's statistics. If a person's name is misspelled, The Post will correct it if alerted. Mexican President Vicente Fox's first name has been misspelled twice lately, with no corrections.

The Post depends on alert readers to point out errors, and we need to appreciate and encourage that. An anonymous caller alerted me this week to the fact that the weather page has been running two discontinued telephone numbers. That was fixed. Score one for the readers.

Next week: What should a correction say?

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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