Newspaper Corrections: Sources Now Share the Obligation

June 1st, 2009; 12:40 pm by Ryan Thornburg

Handling errors and corrections online is good topic for newsroom debate. The dual challenge is that online text can be updated/fixed/improved/corrected at any time and it’s also always available. That means errors can get corrected quickly, but those that don’t can damage credibility long past the daily print edition.

In a world where anyone can publish a blog, professional journalists need to emphasize accuracy and credibility even more. But the reductions in staff at almost all newsrooms in America is putting a squeeze on quality control.

This story from last week’s News & Observer provides an interesting case study. The piece quoted me, but mistakenly said I had worked for USA Today. When I saw the error, I emailed the reporter and used the article’s comments section to quickly post my own correction.

In the last week, though, I never heard back from the reporter. It turns out he was on furlough. He sent an apologetic note once he got back. That said, the fact error remains online.

So, let’s walk through what’s wrong (and right) with this picture:

1. Error gets in the news article. Yes, this is an automatic F in my introductory newswriting classes, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. Many people would wisely artgue that these kinds of pernicous little errors are going to become more common, though, as reporters take on the work of departed colleagues and stories get fewer reads by editors before they go to press.

2. Vigilant sources can use comments to correct errors in the article. This is incredibly empowering and could go a long way to increasing trust in journalism. You often hear sources say they spot errors in reporting but never bother to ask for a correction because they figure the reporters and editors won’t care anyway. For the most part I think that’s the opposite of true. But it also doesn’t matter now — sources have the ability, and even the obligation, to correct errors of fact. To not do so is to complictly accept and tolerate inaccuracy.

3. Someone at the N&O should have been monitoring these comments and alerting the appropriate editors to corrections. The primary reason the comments section on newspaper articles are so low-brow is because the (already thinly spread) staff is not participating in them. Which leads us back to the old sentiment among sources and readers — that newspaper editors just don’t care about what I have to say.

This example highlights the two key components to success in the future of news — high levels of accuracy and engagement. Journalists who don’t pursue both are in danger of becoming quickly irrelevant.

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3 Responses to “Newspaper Corrections: Sources Now Share the Obligation”

  1. Shannan Bowen Says:

    And it still says you worked for USA Today.

    I especially agree with point #3, which brings up the question: should newspapers dedicate one person to monitoring forums, discussions and comments sections?
    I know that might stretch a lot of staffs pretty thin, but it’s an important task if news organizations are going to provide these types of services online.
    We have editors here who monitor and participate our discussion forums (though we should probably do it more), and I always scan the discussion forums each day to find items related to my articles. Not only can we pick up mistakes or corrections, but there’s often a lot of story ideas or follow-up suggestions we’ll find.

    Do you have any suggestions for structure news organizations could use to monitor their comments or discussions? Do you think this should fall under one particular staff member’s job? Any ideas on how editors and reporters can use these services to our advantage and avoid overlooking anything?

  2. Ryan Thornburg Says:

    Shannan, I do have a quick 1-pager on the topic of managing community, but would be happy to share some more thoughts.

    Start here and let me know what further questions you have:
    http://ryanthornburg.org/articles/1page-comments.pdf

  3. Shannan Bowen Says:

    Thank you!

    Did you see this article today: http://www.mediabistro.com/prnewser/events/businessweekcoms_byrne_i_had_to_bribe_reporters_to_respond_to_comments_on_their_articles_118071.asp?c=rss

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