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Whittling Down the Corrections Backlog

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, April 26, 2009

This appeared on Page A2 of last Tuesday's Post:

"A Nov. 19, 2008, Metro article incorrectly described the origin of Valenti House, a residential treatment program that is part of Woodley House. It was named for Mary Margaret Valenti, wife of the late Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America."

It's a correction. It's also a bit of an embarrassment.

The Post's internal policies call for errors to be corrected promptly. But my ombudsman's column about a month ago disclosed a backlog of hundreds of correction requests, a few dating to 2004. It noted that 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."

Post editors and reporters, many red-faced from the revelation, have been working through the pile. Many corrections are running, some more than a year after they should have appeared. A broken system is being fixed.

Today's column isn't intended as a pat on the back. The Post doesn't deserve congratulations for addressing a problem that shouldn't have arisen. Rather, this is an update for readers on steps The Post has taken recently to restore faith in its commitment to correcting mistakes.

These steps began on the morning of March 22, when my column about corrections appeared. Robert McCartney, who oversees the Metro desk where the build-up of corrections requests was greatest, sent a note to his staff insisting on a "proactive, forthright, transparent, humble and candid approach to corrections."

Every reader who requests a correction "MUST receive a response in some form," he wrote, noting that Post internal policies dictate that such replies be "polite and prompt."

Existing Post procedures had required only that staffers notify an editor when a reader or source requested a correction. McCartney expanded that to mandate that the reporter, his or her immediate editor and a supervising editor all be notified to ensure the request was addressed.

By that Sunday afternoon, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli had written to other senior editorial managers, recommending McCartney's note as a "good model for what practices should be, Post-wide."

Three days later, Peter Perl, a top editor and 28-year veteran of the paper, was given broad oversight responsibility for the corrections process. He immediately began working with departments to clear the requests stacked up in The Post's electronic corrections database.

Finally, more than 30 editors and others were summoned to an April 14 remedial training session to ensure they understood how requests should be handled in the database.

Elizabeth Spayd, the managing editor in charge of the newspaper's hard-news sections, told them they should not be reluctant to publish corrections. "Let's make sure we set the bar low" in deciding the threshold for granting requests, she said.

The huge backlog has been reduced. By midweek, pending requests more than two weeks old were about a quarter of the total of 185 requests at the beginning of April.

"We're getting pretty close" to making the database current, said Perl. "The vast majority are getting corrected unless they are truly inconsequential." If an error is too minor to warrant a published correction, he said, it is being corrected in The Post's internal archives to ensure the inaccuracy isn't repeated by reporters researching future stories.

Perl said he is "harassing" editors "if I see that their section had requests backed up." In addition to pestering by Perl, section editors now receive weekly e-mails alerting them to correction requests that have been pending more than seven and 14 days.

Soon, Perl added, The Post will begin to address policies for promptly correcting errors in videos and other forms of online storytelling. Current policies apply mainly to correcting stories that have appeared in print.

The corrections breakdown was a black eye for The Post and damaged its credibility with readers.

"It's called arrogance. Plain and simple," wrote one.

"The Post's disdain for corrections indicates a lack of concern through the whole process," said another.

It has also prompted contrition by Post staffers, who have had to reassure readers that the paper cares about getting it right.

Obituaries editor Adam Bernstein, writing to a reader this week, apologized for an "inexcusable delay in many parts of the newspaper" in handling corrections. Granting a reader's 15-month-old request, Bernstein said, "We want to assure you of the emphasis The Post places on accuracy."

It's a good start. I'll monitor progress. If there's backsliding, you'll know.

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

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