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I recently was on the receiving end of a rather humorous correction to one of my articles when it appeared online. An Op/Ed feature I wrote for the Chicago Tribune went through copy edit, and the word "their" was changed to "tits" when they actually meant to change it to "its." I laughed when I saw the silly mistake, sent an email to my editor about it and the change was quickly made. No muss, no fuss.

Changes and corrections in the world of journalism are not always so funny, though. Newspapers don't like to make them, but most do so diligently. Print and digital are very different in this regard, though. If a change is made to an article that originally appears online and did not come from the print edition, if that change is not called out prominently then the reader assumes the mistake or error never occurred in the first place.

That dynamic got me thinking about how journalism corrections are handled in the digital age, and so I investigated how some major news sites handle the process.

The New York Times’ site may have the gold standard for dealing with this issue. The term “Corrections” is clearly called out in the home page navigation, and when you click on the link you go to a simple, well-organized page that lists corrections two ways. At the top of the page there are links to corrections that occurred on recent dates, and beneath that are links to articles that have been recently amended.

When you click on a date, you see a list of the changes and a concise explanation of why they were made. On the day I looked, they ranged from correcting a quote made by presidential candidate Mitt Romney to re-indentifying a hockey player in a photo caption. When you click on the link to the article in which the mistake occurred, that page also contains the correction, noted prominently at the bottom of the story. The only real issue with how the Times handles this is that it can be a bit difficult to tell if the article is from the newspaper or was original to their site.

On their corrections index page, the Times also encourages its readers to contact them about errors they may see, and they list an email address and a phone number to use to send them in. And then the Times does something really interesting – they go a step further in the process of assuring their readers that their concerns will be taken seriously. The Times gives another avenue if someone is unhappy with the response they receive about an error: “Readers dissatisfied with a response or concerned about the paper’s journalistic integrity may reach the public editor at public@nytimes.com or (212) 556-7652.” The Times is anything but perfect, however their commitment to accuracy in this regard is both commendable and fairly water tight.

How does CNN’s website, which gets substantially more traffic than the Times, handle corrections? Unlike the Times, there is no link on the site’s home page to a section that aggregates corrections. I then used the site’s search engine to look for a “corrections” section, but the results only took me to articles in which the term is used as part of the story.

I then resorted to doing a Google search for “corrections on CNN.com.” That generated a link to an index page of corrections on CNN Money’s site, but not one for CNN. CNN Money’s page was similar to that of the Times – a chronological list of corrections with links to the articles, with the corrections notice also repeated at the end of the article.  The URL for the CNN Money corrections page is http://money.cnn.com/news/corrections/.

So, would the elusive CNN corrections page exist at http://cnn.com/news/corrections/? That link actually leads to the dreaded “Page not found” page. OK, well what about just http://www.cnn.com/corrections/? Again, no luck.

I am not the only one who has been frustrated with CNN’s way of handling corrections online. In Dec. 2010, PBS.org ran an article on their Idea Lab blog about the process of contacting CNN to ask them to correct a mistake in a video report in which the prime minister of New Zealand was misidentified. More than a month after sending in a report about the error, CNN had still not responded. Frustrated, the blog author wrote, “for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there's no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.” (CNN eventually did make the correction, but it was almost 6 weeks after the fact.)

But what about across the pond? Do papers in other countries handle the process any differently? I surfed across the sea to check out The Guardian’s site, which attracts more than 4 million users a month. There is a prominent “Corrections” link on the home page that links to a detailed section devoted to “Corrections and clarifications” that is organized chronologically, much like the Times. Accuracy, it seems, is a priority at The Guardian as well.

The three preceding examples are all from news organizations with reputations for liberal/progressive points of view. What about a news organization that emphatically leans right?

There is no link on the home page of Fox News’ site to any sections dealing with corrections. A search of the site for “corrections” results in the same thing I found at CNN – a list of articles that include the word. Could Google get me there?

The top result for searching “corrections on Fox News” was a link to the “Fox New Corrections” Twitter feed. However, this was not run by Fox, and its last Tweet was in 2009. Could it be that Fox News has yet to make a mistake? Given the network’s rather high opinion of itself, it’s a safe bet that some people there may think so.

All kidding aside, though, what does this survey say about correcting journalism mistakes in the digital age? First, because of the massive amount of information being generated, it’s a difficult, time-intensive process that requires the audience to be actively involved. And second, if a site does not do it well, it not only will alienate and frustrate its audience, but also it will eventually be a credibility killer.

 

Chicago-based writer John D. Thomas, author of the novel Karaoke of Blood, is currently finishing a book on the cultural history of saliva.

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