The Messy Business of Corrections: Advice for Journalists on How to Recover from a Mistake
Stephen King once said, “To write is human, to edit is divine.”
King underscores this to aspiring writers in the third foreword to his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He states ” … for all [writers] have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection.”
King speaks from decades of experience creating macabre stories.
Mistakes happen to even the best of journalists. Here are some lessons from three veterans.
Check Your “Certainty”
One such instance involved a story “correction” while he was a newbie copy editor with a Michigan newspaper.
An auto writer and expert on General Motors submitted a story that mentioned Chevrolet Motor Division was founded by Louis Chevrolet.
“‘Wait a minute,’ I said,” said Sullivan. “‘Chevrolet was founded by Louis and Gaston Chevrolet. I know because my great-grandmother somehow knew Gaston Chevrolet. We were from Indianapolis, he raced at Indianapolis, and I had a great-great-uncle who was a mechanic at the race in the late 1910s and early 1920s.’ So I just changed it. And it ran.”
When the writer asked Sullivan why he made the change, Sullivan explained his personal connection. He quickly learned Gaston Chevrolet had nothing to do with Chevrolet cars, but was a partner in a later car company, Frontenac, which was based in Indianapolis.
“I don’t remember if we ran a correction,” said Sullivan, who also serves as vice president of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES). “I sure kept a low profile in the newsroom for weeks.”
The lesson? “If your great-grandmother says she loves you, Gaston Chevrolet or anyone, check it out. Always ask the reporter if you’re going to make a substantive change.”
Own The Clarity
While Sullivan has 20/20 hindsight on preventive measures, ACES President Teresa Schmedding speaks to rapidly treating publishing mistakes.
Schmedding worked 20-plus years with the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. She served four years as deputy managing editor of digital operations.
Schmedding and her team followed a firm digital correction policy: Errors beyond simple grammar or spelling would be corrected with a note at the top, alerting readers to the specific error.
“Too many think an error online doesn’t count when you can ‘erase it’ with a quick update,” she says. “That’s ethically slimy. No one sees a new time stamp on a story and re-reads it looking for what information was changed.”
Schmedding continues: “Will someone notice that the 12th paragraph now says the meeting is at 5? That the sentence on the tax increase now says 3 percentage points instead of 3 percent? Or a quote is now attributed to someone else? No, and that will hurt your credibility long-term.”
Publicly owning up to the mistake enhances credibility because people know they can trust you to be honest, she says.
Cover All Bases
Perhaps clarity and corrections are most important in broadcast journalism, where a mistake may make waves with a vast audience unaware of the inaccuracy.
Lynn Walsh, executive investigative producer with NBC San Diego affiliate KNSD-TV, says it’s key to immediately correct an error.
Once her team knows of a mistake, it’s instantly clarified online and video is attached for reference.
On air, errors are corrected in front of a segmented audience.
“Data shows viewers aren’t necessarily watching the news at the same day and time, so we try to address the overlap,” Walsh says. “If the mistake was made during a 20-second story on the 4pm show, we’d make the correction on the next 4pm show, explaining and elaborating at the same time and with the same layout.”
Walsh and her team constantly face hurdles when government officials and businesses decline interviews. This forces them to rely on documents rather than conversations.
“It requires a lot of thinking outside the box for additional sources of confirmation,” Walsh says. “We’ll have the same information, but from five or six places.”
Have any tips or lessons that you learned in your journalism career? Share them below in the comments section.
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Allison Richard writes features for PR Newswire’s media blog and is a supervisor with the media research department at Cision. A former international editor for Cision Blog, she loves languages and culture. She also likes yoga, useless trivia, painting and comedy, in no particular order.