Print news admits its mistakes. Should online news?
By Katelynn Gough
It was around 5:30 a.m. on March 7, 2012. Bethany Horne, then news curator for OpenFile Halifax, opened her MacBook Pro to read the news. She was surprised to see a story about the launch of a “renegade” bus service. The news came in the midst of a 40 day transit strike in the Halifax Regional Municipality. As Horne began to read, she knew it would be a huge story.
After reading the Chronicle Herald’s story several times, she found little evidence proving the existence of the bus service.
The story stated “an entrepreneur” was “planning to run a renegade bus service from Lower Sackville to downtown Halifax starting Thursday.” The entrepreneur was never named or quoted in the story, which cited a Kijiji ad and a free hosted website on weebly.com. “How is this the front page story?,” she asked herself. Horne realized the piece – which ran on the front page of the Herald’s print edition – could be a hoax.
“So I read it again,” she recalled months later. “And was like, ‘There’s nothing here, like, there’s no evidence that this is even real.’”
The renegade bus story was indeed a hoax, or, as the Herald wrote in a follow-up story, the “mystery bus service” pulled a “vanishing act.”
Social media users quickly weighed in. The Halifax-Dartmouth and District Labour Council sent a tweet dismissing the website as a hoax and claiming no license had been issued for a private bus service. “Bad reporting from Chronicle Herald,” they added.
Horne went online to voice her dissatisfaction. Her March 8 post on OpenFile’s Halifax site said the story was “tiny” and lacked research. She went as far to say running the story on the front page was “not justifiable.”
Frank De Palma, newsroom director at the Chronicle Herald, declined to comment on Horne’s post.
“Being in the publishing business, you’re always opening yourself to judgment and criticism [from] other groups. Some of it warranted, some of it not,” he says. “It’s something we’ve become accustomed to because it’s just more and more open now, because of the websites and increased sets of eyes.”
Since the dawn of reporting, the media has made errors. The Internet allows information to circulate faster, which provides the opportunity for mistakes to go by unnoticed. News consumers then form inaccurate opinions based on the faulty information. As news reporting shifts to the Internet, an online corrections policy is essential to keep the trust of readers.
In 2004 the blog regrettheerror.com began posting examples of errors and providing instructions on how to make appropriate corrections. In 2011 the blog became part of Poynter.org, an institute that “exists to ensure that our communities have access to excellent journalism.” Founder of the blog, Craig Silverman, wrote a book in 2007 also called Regret the Error. He says online publishers must be dedicated to the “promotion” of their errors and getting corrections out.
“Now if it’s in a newspaper it may also be on a website and that same piece of content may have been shared on Facebook, may have been tweeted,” he says. “And so now you have to make that correction flow to all of the right places.”
Some outlets don’t have online corrections policies. They change the story online, never acknowledging there was an error. If print announces corrections, why doesn’t online? The public has a right to know when information is wrong. Organizations have to be vigilant about corrections in the cyber world.
Esther Enkin, the executive editor of CBC News, says a minor editing error doesn’t require a correction. She says journalists do have to be transparent when fixing stories that are unclear.
“If it’s an error of fact or interpretation or something that requires a correction or clarification in that sense, that’s when we are very transparent about the fact that we changed the story.”
The issue is off the radar for some local media outlets.
At the Casket, a weekly newspaper in Antigonish, managing editor Brian Lazzuri says an online corrections policy has never been discussed. Tom Ayers, director of editorial at the Cape Breton Post, also admits to not having an online policy. Corrections are made in the print edition, but not on the website. “Typically, if we ran a story in print and online and we’re running a correction in print the next day, then we would go back and make the correction online,” Ayers says.
This is something both Lazzuri and Ayers have begun to second-guess. “I realize that maybe we have some work to do there on that policy,” Lazzuri says.
Ayers says he hasn’t had readers “call for a change.”
“I think we do a reasonably good job,” he says. “I can see some advantages to a policy where you would list at the bottom of the story or the top of the story, this is a corrected version and identifying what the correction was. But I’m not sure that our readers really need that.”
How corrections are recorded is essential to public trust in Canadian media. Should the public have to demand corrections? James McCarten, Ottawa News and Canadian Press Stylebook editor, says common mistakes, such as misspelled names, can affect the credibility of journalists.
“Some mistakes are avoidable and infuriating, and they are very detrimental to the credibility of the organization specifically, (and) the industry as a whole,” he says.
The House of Chan, a restaurant in Toronto, was a recent victim of a factual error by the Toronto Star. In August of 2012, a Star journalist “mistakenly included” the restaurant “among a list of steakhouses that have closed in recent years.” Peter Pau, the manager of House of Chan, says journalists should check their facts before publishing a factual error.
“It’s not right,” says Pau. “They should do some research. Like at least pick up the phone and call and find out.”
A 2011 study by the Canadian Media Research Consortium found that 86 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 34 believe online news is reliable. But other research shows that Canadians still don’t have full trust in the media. In 2008, the same researchers found that almost “two-thirds of Canadians believe that the news media cover up their mistakes.”
Error leads to assumed death
In February 2010, Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot was surprised to turn on his car radio and hear reports of his death. The hoax sparked a Twitter frenzy and a whole lot of finger pointing.
Here are how some news publications covered the story and how others cleaned up their mess:
There are various ways to create an online corrections policy, and many examples of how errors can be fixed.
The CBC posts a “Report a Typo or Inaccuracy” tab on the bottom of each story. By clicking on the tab, readers are encouraged to point out any errors they find.
CBC’s Esther Enkin says this method is there for “obvious reasons.” A typo tab is an easy way to “maintain the site as accurately as possible.” Other websites, such as the Toronto Star, have a Columns page dedicated to corrections. OpenFile does a strike through the error and acknowledges the mistake at the bottom of the page. On Poynter.org, a link to the corrections and story is located at the bottom of the homepage. Using one of these methods will promote more accurate reporting and accountability.
Kathy English, the public editor at the Toronto Star, says she isn’t sure how newsrooms can run without an online corrections policy.
“I think it’s important that the public know the standards that we hold ourselves accountable to and that they hold us accountable for.”
Silverman, author of Regret The Error, hopes that one day there will be a universal standard for online corrections. He says professional organizations should create guidelines explaining what to do when a correction is needed. From here “there’s some room for implementation.” It will allow readers to better understand where to look for a correction.
“You know, they used to know where to look for corrections in a print edition. Now online, it’s not always as clear. I think that that’s a really unfortunate situation, and one that we need to fix as soon as possible.”
Once the standard is set, deciding whether a correction goes at the top or the bottom of a page is up to the news organization.
No one wants to admit that they’ve made a mistake. There are various reasons why journalists are hesitant to admit to a mistake: fear, ego, or pride. McCarten says recognizing a mistake is a sickening sensation.
“It’s a terrible feeling. It’s the worst feeling you can have as a journalist. Every one of us in this business, regardless of where we are or regardless of level of experience, have made mistakes in the past.”
No matter how an error comes to be it shouldn’t be ignored.
The Canadian Press recently issued an important correction. In September 2012 it released an article about a 1950s Canadian fighter jet, the Avro Arrow. The plane was reported as “scrapped” before it was even built. In reality, the aircraft had flown before the “project was shut down.” They wrote a Corrective, which is a notice released explaining “erroneously reported” facts.
A correction was issued saying, “an earlier version of this story said that the Arrow program was cancelled before a single plane was built. In fact, prototypes were built and flown before project was shut down.” McCarten says The Canadian Press has a system that causes stories to be “overwritten.” It allows them to be able to see which clients have used the story, “target it and fix it.”
Despite not having an online corrections policy at the Cape Breton Post, Ayers says transparency is key. “If you ignore corrections or request for corrections, or you fail to handle them properly, that hampers your credibility and hampers the credibility of journalism.”
Silverman says news media organizations have two choices: they can create a standard for online corrections policies or wait for blogs like iMediaEthics to highlight “media errors and bias.
“If news organizations don’t implement proper policies and procedures, and if they don’t do a good job of correcting them, then the future could be that they continue to lose trust.”