Because web pages are just computer files, news stories on the web can be altered at will after publication. That makes corrections on the web a little more complex than corrections in print -- but it also makes them potentially much more effective. Unlike in print or broadcast, you can fix the original. You can make errors vanish -- though not without a trace, if you're doing it right.
So why do so many news organizations continue to handle their online corrections so poorly? At MediaBugs, where we're devoted to improving the feedback loop between the public and the press, we've just published our first survey of corrections practices at more than two dozen Bay Area news outlets. The report's top-line conclusion? Mostly, they're doing it wrong.
Three quarters of the 28 news outlets we reviewed provide no corrections-reporting link of any kind on their home or article pages. Even media organizations that show signs of working to handle corrections carefully fall down in various ways -- and lots of others don't look like they're even trying.
Many bury information about how to report errors behind confusing trails of links. Some provide multiple, poorly labeled avenues for feedback without telling readers which ones to use for error reports. Others provide no access to recently corrected articles beyond a search on "corrections," which often turns up multiple stories about prisons.
These findings are disheartening -- not simply for how poorly editors are protecting their readers' trust in them, but also because handling these matters better doesn't take that much effort.
There's really just a small number of things any news website needs to do if it wants to handle corrections and error reports responsibly:
- Append a note to any article that's been corrected, explaining the change;
- Keep a list of these changes, linking to the corrected articles, at a fixed location on the site;
- Post a brief corrections policy, with information about how readers can report errors they find;
- Make sure that your corrections listing page and your corrections policy (whether they're on the same or different pages) are part of your site navigation -- they should be accessible by one click from any page on your site.
In addition to our survey, we've provided a brief summary of best practices for corrections and error reporting that we hope will be helpful to news site editors and their readers alike.
No More Excuses
Fifteen years ago, in the early days of web publishing, it might have been understandable for editors to have a hard time figuring out how to handle corrections: This pliable medium was new and strange.
But news on the web is no longer in its infancy, and "We're new to this" just doesn't cut it anymore as an explanation for the kind of poor practices our MediaBugs survey documents. The explanations you generally hear are truthful but don't excuse the problems: "Our content management system makes it too hard to do that" or "we just don't have the resources to do that" or "we've been meaning to fix that for a while but never seem to get around to it."
The web excels at connecting people. That's what its technology is for. Yet when it comes to the most basic areas of accuracy and accountability, the professional newsrooms of the Bay Area (and so many other communities) continue to do a poor job of connecting with their own readers.
It's time for news websites to move this issue to the top of their priority lists and get it taken care of. They can do this, in most cases, with just a few changes to site templates and some small improvements in editing procedures. Of course, we hope, once they've done that, that they'll do more: At MediaBugs, we want to see that every news page on the web includes a "Report an Error" button as a standard feature, just like the ubiquitous "Print" buttons, "Share This" links and RSS icons.
MediaBugs offers one easy way to do this -- our error-reporting widget is easy to integrate on any website. You can now see it in action on every story published over at Spot.Us. But there are plenty of other ways to achieve this same end.
As long as readers can quickly and easily find their way to report an error with a single click, we'll be happy. But before we get there, we've all got some basic housekeeping to take care of first. End the suffering of orphaned corrections links and pages now!