When a Correction Isn’t Enough

On Jan. 25, Simon Owens blogged about new research about why more and more journalists are fleeing the newspaper business. Owens didn’t just quote from the paper by Dr. Scott Reinardy of Ball State University — he also interviewed the author and presented information from that original reporting in his post.

Owens’ post got noticed not only by Poynter’s Jim Romenesko, but also by Editor & Publisher, in this Jan. 25 article by Emily Vaughan.

According to Owens, when he saw Vaughan’s article as originally posted to the E&P site, he was taken aback: “Though some of the facts [in her story] came directly from the study itself, many of the facts reported were lifted directly from my article — facts that came from my interview with the professor in question. Was I given any credit for my reporting? None at all. It’s presented in such a way as if the reporter had gathered those facts herself.”

Owens e-mailed E&P about the lack of attribution. Sometime later that day, Vaughan’s article was updated to include this addition to the last paragraph: “This is just the beginning of Reinardy’s studies about journalist burnout, he told bloggasm’s Simon Owens.” Also, another reference to bloggasm.com was inserted into the fourth paragraph.

As of this writing, the E&P story includes no link to Owens’ post about the research — although it does link to the study. Owens told me via e-mail that he did correspond with E&P editor Greg Mitchell, who apologized privately for the oversight.

I’m not trying to pick on E&P. However, I disagree with how they handled this correction.

This is a case where it might at least appear that Vaughan or E&P was claiming credit for Owens’ work. I strongly doubt that was their intention — but appearances do count, especially when issues of ethics and credibility are at stake for a journalism organization or venue.

One way to combat that appearance would be to acknowledge the original oversight, as well as making the correction. E&P also could add a link to Owens’ post — because they opted to link to the study, and why link to one source but not the other?

For journalistic outfits, even honest and seemingly minor mistakes carry the risk of damaging credibility. And what does any journalistic organization have to offer but its credibility? Can any journalistic organization afford to look — even for a moment, even slightly — like it might have tried to plagiarize?

It’s not too late to make this better. E&P still can add an editorial note to this story, such as: “When originally posted, this story did not clearly attribute some of the facts presented here to Simon Owens, who interviewed the study’s author. We have updated this story to correct that oversight.” Such an acknowledgement might serve to build goodwill, in addition to allaying potential skepticism of E&P’s editorial motives or methods.

This kind of acknowledgment is even more important since Editor & Publisher does not allow readers to post comments directly to its site.

Poynter Online is far from perfect, but we do have a pretty good set of ethics guidelines. Here’s an excerpt:

“We create and edit our journalism in ways aimed at anticipating problem areas, reducing mistakes, and correcting them as quickly and transparently as we can. We maintain an online corrections page that makes it easy for the audience to report errors. We provide timely response, clear corrections, and prominent acknowledgement that a mistake was made and addressed. We credit the authors and creators of the various forms of journalism we publish. We apply appropriate scrutiny to work by staff and contributing writers to prevent plagiarism, intentional or otherwise. We do not intentionally mislead with words or images. We do not deliberately deceive as we gather information.”

Over the last couple of years I’ve had to correct several errors and omissions in Tidbits posts, and make corresponding entries on Poynter Online’s correction page. It’s never fun admitting that I (or another Tidbits contributor) got something wrong, but that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

I asked E&P’s Mitchell about this incident if his site has a correction policy. So far I haven’t received an answer from him about their policy. However, here’s what he told me via e-mail about how this specific correction was handled:

“That item was written by a (terrific) college intern who had been here for just two weeks. When Owens alerted us, we told him we would take care of it (as we always do in these cases) and we did, immediately. He then thanked us, posted an update on his site saying it was dealt with quickly and that he is a big fan of E&P. We got one letter from someone responding to his call to write us, but it arrived just after we had already fixed it, as I recall.”

How do you handle corrections on your site? What are your policies, formal or informal? Please comment below.

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