Correct the error

Monday 21 December 2009, 14:42

Kevin Marsh Kevin Marsh is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

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An intriguing article from the Washington Post's Ombudsman Andrew Alexander this weekend.

It's about news organisations' reluctance to own up when they've made a mistake - or, as happened with his own newspaper, surround themselves with rules and rituals about what can be admitted or who can be fingered when something goes wrong.

The mistake the Washington Post made seems a trivial one - in an article bylined with reporter Akeya Dickson's name, a reference was made to a song which declares 9/11 a joke; the song actually refers to the US emergency number 911. But Dickson was soundly thumped around the blogosphere and Twitterverse.

And although the newspaper corrected the error, its protocols prevented it from saying publicly that the mistake wasn't Dickson's at all - the copy she submitted was correct. It was a less aware sub-editor who'd mistakenly 'corrected' 911 to 9/11.

It would be a small storm in a distant teacup were it not for the fact that, as the Post's ombudsman writes, "the basic format for newspaper corrections has remained unchanged for centuries" - and that's as true here in the UK as the US. 

The US blogosphere is often referred to as the final court of appeal on American news organisations' standards and ethics. Sparky sites like Regret the Error and, as importantly, the comments on such sites from readers and viewers help keep the papers and channels on their toes ... or at least flag up the worst practices.

Here in the UK, where the blogosphere developed later and along different lines, the same intense audience scrutiny isn't yet evident online. And, as many readers will testify, some newspapers can be stubborn when it comes to demands for a correction ... or indeed any critical interaction with their audiences. 

Yet, as we all know, news is now a conversation - and that means being open and honest with readers and listeners and viewers about what we know, what we don't and what we've got wrong. That's certainly the advice we give here in the Truth and Accuracy section of this website.

But, as Andrew Alexander writes, we journalists probably have to go further: rewarding readers and viewers who spot errors (with publicity rather than cash); notifying audiences when a correction appears, not just leaving them to find it; highlighting corrected stories on homepages and archives; making corrections descriptive - say why you got it wrong and, if you understand more now, what it is that changed your understanding.

And it doesn't have to be po-faced. Take this famous correction by columnist Dave Barry who'd misspelt a name:

"In yesterday's column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologise. In my defence, 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."  

Fact is - and this has been my experience over the last 30 years as a BBC output editor - if you want your audiences to trust you, you have to level with them. They know that people get things wrong; that even the most assiduous fact checking can't eradicate every mistake. Sure, they're unlikely to be pleased if your mistake is about them - but they'll trust you more if you're straight rather than if you pretend omniscience and refuse to admit even the possibility of error.

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