A spotty record on counter-errorism

By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Post received a journalism award last week, but it won't be displayed alongside its Pulitzer prizes. The paper was given the 2009 "Correction of the Year" award by Regret the Error, a Web site that tracks media mistakes and mea culpas.

The correction, published early this month, read: "A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number."

Akeya Dickson, the young Post staffer who wrote the story, took a beating in the blogosphere when the correction went viral. She was accused of not knowing the song was about slow emergency response times to 911 calls from black communities. And never mind that it was released more than a decade before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Dickson was unfairly attacked. The story she submitted had accurately referred to 911, but the reference was changed to 9/11 by a copy editor unfamiliar with the song. Because Post policy precludes assigning individual fault in published corrections, Dickson was sacrificed in the name of institutional blame.

In my blog last week, I suggested rethinking that policy. But why stop there? The Post, and its readers, could benefit from examining fresh approaches to correcting mistakes.

The basic format for newspaper corrections has remained unchanged for centuries. In his 1690 prospectus for Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestic, the nation's first multipage paper, publisher Benjamin Harris wrote that any "material mistake" in an edition "shall be corrected in the next." (There was only one edition before the government shut it down.)

Over the years, newspaper corrections have followed the same form: an explication, typically terse and impassive, appearing each day in a box. But as The Post seeks to innovate in print and online, it should explore new ideas for corrections that could boost credibility and make readers feel more invested in the quality of its journalism.

Some ideas:

-- Reward readers who report errors. Craig Silverman, the Montreal-based writer who created and runs Regret the Error, suggests showing appreciation to those responsible for the most published corrections. "Maybe at the end of the year the top ten people receive a free Post subscription . . . or they get invited to a special dinner party with copy editors," he said. "The more you can involve readers, the more faith they will have in you."

-- Notify readers about corrections instead of making them look for them. Most online readers discover a correction when they see one attached while re-reading a story. But some news Web sites provide RSS feeds that alert readers when stories have been corrected.

-- Each day on the Web site, prominently list recently corrected stories and highlight them in archival searches. This ensures readers are aware of the most accurate version.

-- Periodically report to readers on the types of errors that have appeared and who's responsible. This is already being done in graphic form by Mint, a national business paper in India that was launched in 2007 by Raju Narisetti, now a Post managing editor. Readers learn how many mistakes involved misspelled names, inaccurate photo captions or misinterpreted information. They are told the percentage of errors caused by reporters, desk editors and even news executives. This transparency signals that the paper is honest about its shortcomings and believes in accountability.

-- Make corrections more descriptive. British papers set the standard. Corrections often go beyond the core mistake to add context and color. And some corrections can be fun, like this one last year by humor columnist Dave Barry: "In yesterday's column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted."

Mistakes are inevitable. Most are routine. Some are deeply embarrassing, like this beauty years ago in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Poll says that 53% believe media offen make mistakes."

The Post recently published its 1,000th correction for 2009, roughly in line with recent years. Although correction requests still sometimes linger, a shameful years-old backlog has been erased. And instructions for submitting corrections are now more prominent on Page A2.

More can be done. As The Post enters the New Year, send me your ideas (at ombudsman@washpost.com) for innovative approaches to handling corrections. I'll forward them to The Post's top editors.

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

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