A Corrections Process in Need of Correcting

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Post strives to get the facts right and pledges to correct those that are wrong.

"Accuracy is our goal, and candor is our defense," says the paper's internal stylebook on standards and practices. "Persons who call errors to our attention should receive a polite and prompt response."

That's commendable. But here's the reality:

As of the beginning of last week, The Post had a backlog of hundreds of correction requests, a few dating to 2004. In many cases, readers never heard whether The Post had rejected their request, or why. For them, it was like sending a correction request into a black hole.

The newspaper's process for handling correction requests has not worked properly. In some instances, reporters were never even notified that readers had requested corrections to their stories.

There is little statistical analysis to spot trends in errors or to detect reporters (or editors) with high correction rates. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets fixed.

Accountability is lacking. Reporters and editors can neglect correction requests with little real consequence. Correction rates are not typically raised in performance evaluations.

Against the backdrop of this abysmal performance, there's some good news. The Post's top editors are aware of the problem. Since being named one of The Post's two managing editors in mid-January, Raju Narisetti has focused on what he acknowledges is a serious problem.

"Some of the requests -- whether meriting a correction or not -- have simply fallen through the cracks between reporters and editors and the system we use to track such requests," he says. "And we don't have a system for pushing for closure."

Mistakes are inevitable in daily journalism, and The Post runs plenty of corrections -- roughly 960 in 2008. Most appear in a box on Page A2, but some parts of the paper -- the obituary and editorial pages, for instance -- carry their own corrections.

Here's how the system works: Correction requests -- by phone call, letter or e-mail to corrections@washpost.com -- are entered into a database. Each day, new requests are routed electronically to the various desks at The Post, including National, Sports, Style, Foreign, Photo and Metro. The reporter who wrote the story and the editor who assigned it are then notified that a correction request is pending. If they think an error has been made, they draft a correction that is sent through top editors before being published.

The system has broken down most frequently with The Post's sprawling Metro desk, which covers Maryland, Virginia, the District and obituaries.

Early last week, it had more than 160 requests pending. Nearly all had been reviewed when they first came in and judged not to warrant a correction,but they had not been "closed" in the system. Some were years old.

Alerted to the backlog on Tuesday, Metro's top editor, Robert McCartney, moved with urgency. He and his deputies began digging through the pile. McCartney said he personally evaluated the pending requests "one by one."

McCartney found that most did not merit corrections. But others, including some "from several years ago," did. "We plan to run corrections as warranted, ensuring that our articles are accurate online and in archives," he added.

McCartney acknowledged he had been unaware of the huge backlog. "I and others did not go into the database regularly and check the status of open corrections requests," he said. "It's clear that we need to improve our procedures."

There's much The Post could do to better its performance on corrections. More accountability and vigilance are needed. The database might be tweaked to pester reporters and editors to address correction requests, sort of like a car's annoying chimes when a seat belt isn't fastened. Managers' bonuses might be tied to their handling of correction requests. And correction rates could be made part of all performance evaluations for reporters and editors.

The Post must also figure out how to handle corrections online. Currently, policies at washingtonpost.com mainly address corrections for print stories that appear on the Web site. But what about correcting videos and other forms of online storytelling?

It's a challenge, but also an opportunity, because the Web offers perhaps the fastest way to correct an error and spread the correction far and wide.

Narisetti is thinking this way. "As new and faster forms of disseminating information become popular -- live Tweets from events, for example -- we owe it to our audiences to . . . make sure we are delivering fast and accurate information," he said, "and also a way to promptly correct errors."

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.

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