Correcting errors, or not
Reporters and editors make mistakes — that’s human. But readers of many news sites would have to be superhuman to discover what they were. Many if not most sites do not even include a link to “corrections” in an obvious place like their left navigation rail. Do they even post their corrections? Of the few sites that do offer a prominent way to get to their print edition corrections, I have seen no site so far which does it in the way I think it should be done.
First, the good: The Washington Post’s online corrections system gets very close. Their corrections page is not the text of the corrections themselves, but a list of “recently corrected articles.” There’s another page that archives the print edition corrections by the date the correction was published. Having both of these ways to browse the corrections is excellent. On each corrected article, the correction appears in a can’t-miss spot, to the right of the lead right under the headline.
The only thing missing from this corrections system is actually making the correction in the full text of the article. The Post’s prominent box that currently runs the text of the correction could instead say something like, “this article has been corrected since it was originally published.” Then there would be a link to “see the original version,” which ideally would have an option to show the changes with strikethrough formatting. I can’t stress enough how important I think it is to correct the text of the original article so the articles people bookmark or share with others do not contain factual errors. It is not enough to correct those factual errors on another page elsewhere on the site. In addition to that, though, the original article needs to be preserved for the historical record. The Washington Post’s simpler system of running corrections with the original articles serves the reader almost as well but does not exploit the Web to its full potential. It deserves a B+.
By comparison, the New York Times gets a D. Its corrections page is available in an extremely prominent position in the site’s left rail, but that’s about all the Times has going for its online corrections. Not only does the corrections page not link to the articles that are being corrected, but if you try the laborious process of finding those articles yourself you discover that the corrections page lists their print edition publication date and section, which is not necessarily where they appeared online (example: there is no “Weekend” section on their Web site). Furthermore, the corrections page only has today’s corrections — there doesn’t seem to be a way to get to corrections that ran yesterday. Emblematic of the lack of significant thought put into this page is the fact that the e-mail addresses offered for visitors to submit corrections are not even “clickable” (i.e., coded as “mailto:” links). But the Times’ worst offense by far is that the original articles are untouched. There is no editing of the original text. There is no insertion of the correction onto the article page, as the Post does. There is no indication whatsoever that the Times has published a correction about a story, so as far as online readers would know, it never did.
The Times does beat out the Chicago Tribune, which deserves a D- for its corrections page. Unlike the Times, the Tribune does archive its corrections from previous days. But the front page of corrections is just a list of links to (and first paragraphs from) all of those archived pages of corrections. All the headlines are the same (“Corrections and Clarifications”) and they don’t even list the publication date of each link. Someone needs to mess around with the content management system a little more.
Many other sites seem not to be linking to corrections prominently, or even posting corrections at all. Take my hometown metro daily, the Philadelphia Inquirer. The word “corrections” does not even appear on their site index page, nor on those of some other Knight-Ridder sites I checked. These papers clearly deserve an F. What are we going to do about the fact that so much of the class is failing?
Update August 6, 2002, 2:16 pm: Adrian Holovaty has a great list of how more sites publish corrections.