Newspapers run corrections as a matter of course; while everyone endeavors to offer the most correct information, slip ups do happen. Most publications that have come from a print background before publishing online maintain some vestige of that system. The Guardian, for instance, maintains a list of corrections in its news section which seems to be updated every day.
But The Guardian is in the minority online. Even among publications with staff — not bloggers relying on their own abilities to keep up — few enough do anything to make their readers aware of corrections made to the publication. In a study looking how publications are managed, the Columbia Journalism Review found dramatic differences between print magazines and the websites associated with those same magazines: copy-editing and fact-checking is far less rigorous for online publications than the print publications they are directly related to.
The more concerning point, however, is what happens when an online publication finds an error after an article has been published. This data collected by the Columbia Journalism Review reflects established online publications with print counterparts, whose staff members theoretically have a higher level of training and commitment to maintaining a professional publication than an individual blogger. Forty-five percent of these established publications will correct factual errors by editing the article and updating it, with no indication that such a change has been made. While there is no hard data on how online-only publications, including blogs, handle this situation, in my own experience as a blogger, updating a blog post or article with no note of the error is the typical method of correcting a factual error.
This leads to a question: if publications do not acknowledge that a correction has been made, are they actually providing their readers with accurate information? Furthermore, do publications have an ethical obligation to bring corrections to the attention of their audience?
No one wants to announce to the world that they were wrong, particularly when writing or blogging is not their full time job. Many bloggers will delete a post entirely if there’s an argument about their opinions, let alone about the facts. It’s a poor option because readers following links to a post since deleted may wind up confused about the location of the missing post. In most cases, it’s possible to find copies of those posts elsewhere — if it hasn’t inspired such fervor that it’s been quoted heavily, the Internet Wayback Machine is likely to have stored a copy.
But it’s more clearly unethical than correcting an article without explicitly stating such action has been taken. Melissa Ford, who blogs under the pseudonym Lollipop Goldstein, argues vehemently against entirely deleting posts: “I don’t delete posts because I feel cheated when other people delete their posts once they are asked to own up to their words. Once you set your ideas out there and someone reads it, it becomes part of their story as well. Every reaction to an original blog post or video is just as valid and important as the original piece. And in that case, removing the original words becomes akin to stealing something away from your readers who were emotionally affected by your words.”
Going back to the Columbia Journalism Review’s numbers, another 43 percent of established online publications add notes to an article when making corrections, but don’t mention the correction elsewhere. Some bloggers will take the approach of adding comments to an existing post in order to provide corrections, rather than editing the body of the text. While this does offer an alternative to simply making a change and moving on, there is no guarantee that a reader will actually make it to all of the comments on a given article, if any. Some sites require a login or a click to open comments, adding another set of steps between the reader and the correction.
If a reader has already read the article, before a correction has been made, she may never know that the facts weren’t correct — few readers go back to an older article, especially online. Assuming such readers are regular visitors to the site, there are ways to put that information in front of them, including noting corrections in a visible place on the home page. But that requires a willingness to advertise that the publication has erred — or that at least one writer at the publication has.
Consider Gawker, the flagship blog of Gawker Media. The site maintains a category of posts labeled “corrections,” which is actually a collection of interesting corrections posted to other sites and publications — not corrections posted to Gawker. The site does edit posts to reflect corrections, republishing them with notes, such as the post “Obama Thinks Defense of Marriage Act Is a ‘Bad Idea’ (CORRECTED)”, a post which misinterpreted an analysis of a fundraiser attended by President Obama.
If the reader manages to catch the update, then he is fully informed. If not, Gawker will publish another post in ten minutes. This approach is reasonable and fulfills ethical expectations. We might consider going further to be in the interest of the reader and the publication, but the reality is that this approach is at least an improvement over publishing corrections the next day with no way to go back to the specific article in question and add an update. It is a clear improvement on print corrections.
There are not yet universal best practices in place for handling corrections online. Greg Brock, the editor responsible for corrections at the New York Times, oversaw a redesign of the publication’s online error page in 2011. Arguably one of the more accessible corrections pages for a major publication, it includes corrections from the last seven days and offers an easy way for readers to submit errors they find. The combination of that page, plus the New York Times’ practice of noting errors at the end of each article as they are corrected, represents one of the best approaches for handling corrections online. It takes a committed team to sustain such an approach, however; what seems like a small workload distributed among a larger team is overwhelming when handled by the same person who researches, writes, edits, updates and otherwise manages all of the content on their own website.
But best practices are needed, that take into account that not all online publications have resources to commit to making corrections, despite the ethical concerns that come with leaving inaccurate information in place. Creating those best practices is a job that every publisher must take on, because the only way that bloggers and other online publishers will know what approaches they can take to managing the corrections process is to see it modeled on other sites.