The State of Online Corrections

News sites lag far behind print and broadcast outlets

In July, the media error reporting serviceMediaBugs released a survey that revealed twenty-one out of twenty-eight Bay Area news websites don’t offer a corrections link, and that seventeen of the twenty-eight “have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.”

In addition to pointing out the failings of the Bay Area media covered in the survey, MediaBugs also released a list of suggested best practices to help new organizations do a better job of encouraging and publishing corrections. (Disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to MediaBugs. I had nothing to do with their recent correction surveys, and previously wrote about the project here.)

MediaBugs recently expanded its service from being solely focused on helping discover and correct mistakes in Bay Area news outlets into one that now covers all fifty states. Yes, media bug reporting has gone national —and so has the organization’s corrections survey.

Last week the site released the details of a survey of the websites of national media outlets. Like the Bay Area survey before it, the results paint a dismal picture of the media’s online correction policies and processes. We in the press talk a great game about correcting our errors, but in the end do a piss-poor job backing it up. (An academic study of corrections found that only two per cent of verified factual errors were corrected by newspapers. Perhaps piss-poor is too generous…)

Here are some of the notable findings of the MediaBugs survey:

• “We found that of the websites of 35 leading daily newspapers we examined, 25 provide no link to a corrections page or archive of current and past corrections on their websites’ home pages and article pages.”

• “Only about half, 17 of the 35, provide a corrections policy of any kind …”

• “Sixty percent of the newspaper sites (21 of 35) do provide an explicit channel (email, phone, or Web form) for the public to report an error to the newsroom.” The MediaBugs report noted that, “this information isn’t prominent or easy to find.”

• “MSNBC, CNBC and ESPN all provide more thorough corrections content. CNN has an email form for reporting errors, but no corrections page or policy.” As for Fox News? “We found no corrections content at all on its website.”

• “Our survey of the websites of a dozen leading news and culture magazines yielded mostly dismal results. Of the 12 websites examined, only one (Wired) provided a corrections link on its pages. None of the 12 provided a corrections policy.”

Combine that with the recent Columbia Journalism Review report that revealed magazines tend to ditch fact checking, embrace error scrubbing, and practice very light copy editing (if at all) when it comes to online content. (I previously summarized the report’s accuracy-related findings.)

The overall picture is a depressing one: news organizations at the local and national level are not putting thought, action, or commitment into online corrections or error reporting. The medium is advancing without one of the essential elements of journalism.

“Our hunch was that the results wouldn’t be great … especially after we did our initial Bay Area Study,” Mark Follman, the associate director of MediaBugs, told me. “But that being said, I really do find it to be a worse state of affairs than I’d even expected.”

He says the bottom line is that “corrections are an afterthought — if there’s any thought there at all.”

He also thinks there a gap between what journalists say about the importance of accuracy and correction, and what we do.

“Any editor will tell you accuracy is important and corrections are important, but that’s not what I found,” he said. “There are a number of Pulitzer Prize-winning papers that have nothing online for corrections.”

The other problem is that the news organization who offer an e-mail address, contact form, or other type of corrections reporting mechanism will often not respond or take action to requests from the public. Follman talked of trying to get a response from CNN for a bug report filed on MediaBugs.

“They are an impenetrable fortress,” he said. “They send back an auto-reply email with a message that’s essentially, ‘Don’t expect to hear from us.’ ”

Then there’s Fox News, which has nothing anywhere on its website related to corrections or reporting errors. “I was thinking they should change their slogan to ‘Fair and Balanced and Never Wrong,’” Follman joked.

This latest batch of data send the clear message that news organizations as a whole are not evolving corrections and accuracy practices to meet the new medium(s).

“Online is where everything has been going and will continue to be going,” Follman said. “It should be the leading edge of this, but it’s very much behind print and broadcast.”

Correction of the Week

“IN Court yesterday, we apologised to Stephen Hesford former MP for West Wirral.

“On 17 October 2009, we published an article entitled ‘MP who took moral stance “was a sex pest”’. The article reported on proceedings before the Employment Tribunal in Liverpool the day before brought against Mr Hesford by a former employee for sexual discrimination.

“The article also stated that a claim for sexual harassment had been made but wrongly implied that Mr Hesford was being accused of personally having sexually harassed his former employee and as such was a hypocrite having resigned a month earlier as a matter of principle as a parliamentary aide to the Attorney General.

“We accepted that there has been no suggestion of any sexual misbehaviour by Mr Hesford and that the proceedings against him were in his capacity as employer.

“We apologised to Mr Hesford and have paid him damages and costs.” Daily Express (U.K.)

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , ,