This module addresses these ethical questions:
- Do news outlets and journalists need to acknowledge errors in the same venue where the error was made?
- If errors are fixed in the same venue, should the fix be acknowledged as a fix?
- What is the responsible way to stop the spread of erroneous information?
- How are traditional and new media addressing the handling of corrections?
Most traditional news organizations have long-established policies for correcting mistakes. According to Craig Sliverman, founder of Regret the Error, The New York Times set one precedent for standardizing corrections when, in 1972, it began publishing all corrections on page A2. Other new organizations soon adopted the convention, which has become well understood by many audiences.
However, other print publications believe a correction should be at least referenced where it first appeared. That is, if an error first appeared on page 1, there should be some reference to it on page 1 when the error is discovered.
Rules for how to correct errors in online news are less clear. Online media, with their need for speed and frequent lack of oversight, provide ripe territory for errors, making the need for clarity important.
“We will always make mistakes. The process of gathering, packaging, editing and publishing/broadcasting news is rife with opportunities for things to go wrong. Every part of the process has potential points of failure.
“Preventing mistakes is of huge importance, but so too is setting the stage to correct them quickly and fully by taking advantage of the networked news environment. Doing so not only meets our obligations to the public, but can, in fact, build trust and help us feel better about our work as journalists. Bottom line: Corrections are important.”
This section endeavors to offer choices for how to set policies, especially for correcting errors online.
The discussion focuses on Twitter, but similar considerations and solutions could be applied to other online media venues, including digital news pages, Facebook, blogs, Reddit, etc.
When journalists make correctable errors in tweets, they can simply delete the tweet and leave it at that. But that method does not acknowledge the error and can leave misinformation uncorrected, allowing it to spread.
Instead, here’s how the Washington Post corrected one error:
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) February 4, 2014
The correction clearly says the original information was wrong, gives the correct information and shows an image of the incorrect tweet. The deletion of the original tweet means that the incorrect tweet can no longer be shared.
The Associated Press took a slightly different approach in this correction:
— The Associated Press (@AP) February 27, 2014
Again, the correction is prominent, but in this case, the original incorrect tweet, which was retweeted more than a dozen times, still lives on. The AP’s general approach is not to “rewrite history” by deleting tweets, unless they are particularly problematic.
Other questions around corrections in online media relate to the kind of explanation required as a story develops. Consider the criticism The New York Times took for changing a high-profile, breaking news story without giving contemporaneous public notice to the readers. As Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, suggests, audiences deserve to know when a story has changed in a substantial way.
Sometimes journalists ask whether it’s necessary to acknowledge a correction in the same place it originally appeared. That is, if there’s an error in a story on your site and you correct it, do you need a note saying it was corrected? Silverman proposes that factual mistakes, or phrasing that requires clarification, appear where the mistake originally did.
Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, has argued that untrue or misleading material needs to be corrected with material of “equal or greater effect, without being defensive.” He adds that the correction should be done “in an effective and timely way that doesn’t reinforce the incorrect material.” Obviously, a correction needs to be clear about what’s being corrected, but it should be concise and not repeat at length material that is wrong or misleading.
How to stop the spread of erroneous information? Silverman suggests that news organizations and journalists make an effort to push out corrections to the same platforms where the original link/content was shared. This helps spread the correction, and the correct information. Journalists bear responsibility for what they report, and this includes helping people become aware of any subsequent corrections.
The main author of this section is Rachel E. Stassen-Berger of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It reflects her analysis and not that of her employer.
See also the section on “Removing material from your archives.”