The more corrections a news organization runs, the more likely I am to trust it.
In the still-insular culture of today’s newsrooms, the number of corrections doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of mistakes made. But those that regularly run corrections, and in a manner that’s prominent and transparent to readers, show a commitment to addressing mistakes and accountability.
“If all you ever heard about the (New York Times) or AP or CNN or Fox were the corrections, you’d think they were terrible,” CNN Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter wrote on Twitter recently. “They’re not.”
His comments came in the wake of CNN retracting a story about a Trump supporter’s ties to Russia and announcing the departure of several staff members (veteran journalists) who were involved in writing and editing it.
Trump-supporting websites seized on the admission to paint mainstream media coverage in general as “fake news” that is biased and unfair to the president.
Elad Nehorai, a Brooklyn writer who has contributed to the Guardian and HuffPost and blogs at PopChassid.com, took the opposite lesson.
“The fact that they issue corrections is what makes them quality media!” he wrote in response to Stelter’s point. “I’m looking forward to the day an extreme right site does the same.”
That’s an obvious starting point for news organizations who want to combat the president’s attempts to undermine trust in the press with a “fake news” mantra, and those who hope or expect to rely on direct financial support from readers.
The first step in building community trust is to have an awesome corrections policy, and to follow it religiously. Craig Silverman, who used to publish the site Regret the Error and now leads Buzzfeed’s coverage of the media, has been preaching this for years.
Silverman has been a leading voice about how to handle corrections as journalism has moved online and newsrooms have faced a whole set of new issues around the speed of coverage and the temptation to quietly make changes in an online story that was wrong without acknowledging that you made the mistake.
The first step is to get over the notion that corrections are some kind of black mark and embrace them as an essential part of the process of good, accurate and accountable journalism.
A friend working as a daily newspaper reporter about 10 years ago asked my advice about a clear factual mistake that she had made in a story, and whether it was serious enough to bring to the attention of her editors to run a correction. Her newsroom counted the number of corrections attached to each reporter’s work, and put them into a mathematical formula that was used on performance reviews. Rather than scare reporters into not making as many mistakes, it led to the newspaper almost never running corrections.
Transparency should guide corrections policies. If you’ve changed anything more than a typo or grammar error in an online story, make a note at the top or bottom of the story (or in line if possible) explaining what was changed.
Banish the old school notion that you “shouldn’t repeat the mistake” when making a correction. Note what you originally wrote and what you changed it to.
In addition to noting a correction in the individual story, maintain a separate running list of corrections on your site with links to those stories, and make it easy to find from your home page.
Depending on the severity of the mistake, make sure that the correction is made or noted in every place that the mistake was delivered. If the error was blasted out to your Twitter and Facebook followers, send out the correction there as well. If it was sent out in a push notification to mobile phones, as painful as it might be to admit the mistake in this way, send out another push notification correcting your error.
Make sure you are listening to readers and sources in the first place so that you know when you’ve made an error. Answer the phone, read the story comments, read and interact with comments you get on your own social media platforms, and search for mentions of your story on readers’ social media feeds.
Explicitly ask your readers to point out errors—in columns and comments by editors and reporters, and/or a tagline or widget on every story. It might seem obvious, but the average reader might not assume that you are even willing to hear that kind of feedback. Thank sharp-eyed readers by name, if possible, when you correct an error they pointed out.
And finally, put your policy in writing, make it easy for readers to find on your site, and draw their attention to it periodically. While you’re at it, do the same for policies on the use of anonymous sources, on un-publishing crime stories, and on identifying victims.
As a wise person once said about newsroom transparency, readers might “believe you less” if you are open about your mistakes, “but they will trust you more.”
Matt DeRienzo is executive director of LION Publishers, an organization that supports local independent online news publishers from across the country. He is a longtime former newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and corporate director of news.