Ombudsman: A poky corrections policy

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Post's internal policies say that when readers point out mistakes, the response should be "prompt." But too often, reporters and editors move at a snail's pace to correct errors.

Despite improvement, an analysis of Post corrections this year showed that reported errors routinely went uncorrected for weeks or even months. Many were indisputable and should have been corrected in the following day's paper.

In the Internet age, this kind of tardiness can be especially damaging. The longer inaccurate information lives on, the greater the risk that it will spread far beyond The Post's readership. Dawdling on errors also weakens the bond of trust with readers who took the trouble to report them. They become justifiably cynical about The Post's commitment to accuracy.

Examples abound:

-- A story about health-care reform legislation put the price tag at $1.2 billion. A reader noted it should have been $1.2 trillion. But it was nearly three weeks before The Post printed a correction.

-- A Sports story said the leader of a professional golf tournament was ahead by seven strokes. A reader e-mailed to say it was actually three. A correction appeared 19 days later.

-- A photo caption identified an officer as being in the Coast Guard. A reader pointed out that he was in the Navy. A correction ran, but more than 10 weeks later.

Errors in daily journalism are inevitable. Through November, The Post published about 950 corrections. The majority ran quickly, within days after the mistake appeared.

More attention has been paid to corrections than in the past. After an ombudsman's column in March disclosed hundreds of unresolved correction requests dating to 2004, The Post did an admirable job in eliminating the backlog. Still, the problem persists.

In mid-October, a Post story about New Orleans relief efforts said the city doesn't have a public hospital. A reader immediately e-mailed that this was "factually incorrect," noting that Louisiana State University was operating a temporary 100-bed hospital in the city. It was more than three weeks before the correction ran.

In early September, a Post story said Britain's Labor Party had been in power since 1993. A reader noted it was actually 1997. It took 41 days before the correction appeared.

Reston reader Domenick DiPasquale alerted The Post that a story had inaccurately put the size of a New York congressional district at "about 55,000 square miles." As The Post requests readers to do, DiPasquale reported the error in an e-mail to corrections@washpost.com, noting that the district's size was "something more like 5,500 square miles." It was more than six weeks before a correction ran.

"I figured this error would be easy enough for an editor to check and correct," DiPasquale told me. "Because this was a simple factual error, it did surprise me that it took so long for the correction to appear."

Chris Swenson of Arlington e-mailed The Post after a front-page story incorrectly stated that murder victim Chandra Levy had been an intern in the office of then-Rep. Gary Condit. In fact, he noted, Levy interned with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The correction ran 45 days later.

Swenson considers The Post a "great newspaper" that adheres to "the highest standards in journalism." Still, he was "surprised" it took so long for a correction. "The Post owes its readers accurate information and, when it fails in that regard, a proper correction," he said.

Brady Holt, a college student from Fort Washington, e-mailed The Post to note that a Metro section story had incorrectly described the location of the Boulevard at Capital Centre shopping center in Largo. It took three weeks for the correction to appear.

"I was only trying to help the paper in what I presumed to be its mission of presenting accurate information," he wrote me.

Each month, corrections "monitors" in Post news departments are e-mailed a statistical analysis of pending and approved requests. It arrives with a standard admonishment: "It is very important that monitors handle correction requests in a timely fashion." So why isn't this happening?

Senior Editor Milton Coleman said that an increased workload for editors, coupled with organizational changes and the temporary relocation of staffers during a months-long newsroom renovation, have caused "large gaps" in the corrections process.

But ultimately, he said, the remedy is that "someone has to be tasked with following up on a regular basis" to see that correction requests are being quickly handled.

For now, he's been assigned to "ride herd" to ensure improvement. It's time to crack the whip.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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