8 best practices for turning readers into copy editors

The vast majority of corrections by news organizations are made after members of the public spot errors and notify newsrooms.

Readers/viewers/listeners post comments about typos and other mistakes. They email, they call, they tweet, they post to Facebook. Collectively, they represent a powerful error spotting force. But these people are often underutilized, ignored by newsrooms, or made to jump through hoops in order to submit an error report. This means fewer corrections, and the persistence of errors.

In order to better identify and correct more of the mistakes we make, journalists should harness the power of the crowd and find better ways of encouraging the public to report errors.

To identify best practices for encouraging readers to spot mistakes, I spoke with people from two news organizations that have been experimenting with error reporting initiatives. In 2010, the Register Citizen of Connecticut and the Columbia Missourian of Missouri introduced new efforts to enable readers to identify mistakes.

The Register Citizen began with a basic “Fact Check” box on its homepage. The initiative soon spread to other papers owned by the Journal Register Company (now part of Digital First Media). Today, the box appears on every story on its participating websites. (I wrote about the Fact Check box a few months after it launched.)

The Missourian, a paper operated in conjunction with the Missouri School of Journalism, has a box on all of its articles that invites readers to spot mistakes. Its error reporting initiative is also a contest called Show Me The Errors. Each month, it gives out a prize to a lucky reader who submitted a correction report on the website. (Names are entered into a drawing.)

Below are eight lessons gleaned from interviews with Matt DeRienzo, group editor of Journal Register Company’s publications in Connecticut, and Maggie Walter, the Missourian’s interactive night news editor and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. (This advice is in no way meant to suggest that you should fire all copy editors and replace them with readers…)

1. Be clear about the call to action. If you want people to spot errors in your reporting you need to be explicit about asking them to do that. A button or call to action that says, “Send feedback about this article” is too vague. Here are the relevant boxes from the Missourian and Journal Register papers:

Register Citizen (and other JRC papers):

Missourian:

Walter noted that adding the “What’s this?” link to the call to action helps people quickly read about the contest and see how they can participate. Just as the call to action needs to be clear, so too does any explanation of a larger program or contest. (Disclosure: The icon used in the Missourian form was created as part of the Report an Error Alliance, of which I’m a co-founder.)

2. Make it ubiquitous. Both the Missourian and DeRienzo’s papers place their invitations to share errors on every online article. Repetition drives home the message that these websites want people to spot and share errors. The easy placement also means readers don’t have to go elsewhere to submit their error reports. “When we first launched the fact check box, it  [was on our] homepages and we moved it fairly early on to have it at the end of every single story,” DeRienzo said. The result? “A big increase” in submissions.

3. Longer, more specific is better. DeRienzo said his organization’s first version of the Fact Check box had very few fields for people to fill out. Over time they evolved to a longer form with more specific fields. “The key to going to that longer format was we were getting pretty shallow information submitted like, ‘This is wrong,’ ” he said. “And what we wanted to ferret out was stuff that could help us improve the story … It’s also cut down on the spam or the ‘You guys are jerks comments.’ “You can also see that the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post both use forms with a variety of fields in order to draw out the specifics of an error report. (In fact, as previously reported by Poynter, the Post’s longer form helped provide inspiration to DeRienzo to change his Fact check box.)

Here’s an early version of the Register Citizen’s Fact Check box:

Here’s the current version:

4. Workflow matters. Who receives the error reports and what’s the process to determine whether or not they warrant corrections? This is where news organizations often fall down. (See some previous workflow problems encountered by The Washington Post.) DeRienzo said the small size of his newsrooms enables him to have the submission go to all top editors at the papers. “It includes the top editors and the people who are most involved in working with reporters and editing copy,” he said. At the Missourian, Walter said, “we have an 18-hour day newsroom and there is always one person in charge of the editing desk and their job is to respond to [error reports] and make fixes as quickly as possible.” Make sure you draft a workflow that takes every error report form submission to correction/rejection and that also includes the direction to…

5. Follow up with readers. One of the best ways to encourage participation is to close the loop with readers who submit errors. That means emailing to say thank you and explain what happened with their submission. “If they leave us a valid email address we do that,” DeRienzo said. “And when someone objects to a story comment, we email them back and say, ‘We’ve taken it down, thank you’; or to say we are not taking it down and why.” Walter writes a monthly article for her paper that shares the number of contest submissions and names the winner. “Write about it and let readers know what kind of errors are being reported, and what you do with them,” she said.

6. Encourage staff to participate. Though not all newsroom employees should receive the correction submissions, everyone needs to buy into the process. That means destigmatizing errors in the newsroom in order to make sure everyone is eager to issue corrections. “We don’t want reporters to feel like [they're] going to be penalized or ashamed to tell us about correction,” DeRienzo said, adding that the worst corrections are “the corrections we don’t make.” Also understand that it can take time to change the culture around mistakes. “You need to keep pushing it as much as you can and you have to be positive about it,” Walter said. “It feels like people are picking on you when you first start, but you have to remember the people sending these [error reports] are helping.

7. Consider rewards and recognition. The Missourian built its error-spotting project around a contest. Each month the winner gets a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of a book that deals with grammar or typos. (The first book given out was “The Glamour of Grammar” by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark. Now they’re giving out “The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time” by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson.) The contest is a major motivation to get people to participate, according to Walter.

“For the December 2011 contest, there were 26 eligible contestants, who submitted 53 corrections,” she wrote in her most recent monthly report about the contest. “Leading the entrants with 22 submissions was Jim Terry, an assistant professor of art history at Stephens College. Terry is the most regular of our participants, and we always benefit from his comments.” For its part, the Journal Register papers have blogs dedicated to sharing the results of the Fact Check box and highlighting the resulting corrections.

8. Publish the corrections! Perhaps this seems obvious, but remember that providing an error reporting framework is useless unless you carry things through to their conclusion. That means publishing corrections for factual errors, or following up with people to explain why you won’t publish a correction. People will not participate if your newsroom is stingy about corrections or following up. (My take is that corrections should be issued for all factual errors, and for any typos or other mistakes that change the meaning of a sentence or otherwise cause confusion for readers.)

Bonus tip: Know that even though you go through the effort to offer an easy way for people to submit via a form, some readers will stick to their own process for noting errors. They will post them in the comments, or call or email. You can’t expect everyone to follow your process, no matter how much effort you put into it. Be sure to include these other avenues into the error report/corrections workflow.

What other tips do you have to share? Please leave them in the comments.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/msternfield Marc Sternfield

    Facebook has become a critical tool for error reporting.  The more “fans” you have, the more
    feedback you receive, and any errors in spelling, grammar or fact will quickly
    be pointed out.  Plus, you can reply to
    viewers’ comments and relate that you have made the correction.

  • Anonymous

    Can’t tell you
    how confident it would make me feel about the news source I was reading to see
    it is depending on me to correct its mistakes.  I particularly like the idea that the organization is
    following a policy of “destigmatizing errors in the newsroom.”

     

    Gosh, just
    thought of a “tip.”  How about
    hiring well-trained, experienced reporters and top-flight copy editors and
    paying them well to eliminate errors in the first place.

  • http://twitter.com/mattderienzo Matt DeRienzo

    Thanks for this piece, Craig. I’m already getting comments from people upset about the devaluing of staff copy editors, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are more important than ever, for many reasons. (The worsening grammar skills and laziness of college grads comes to mind.) And I think they’ll have an incredible emerging role in the verification process as we sift through social media tips and the thousands of other sources of information available to us now as we report. Staff copy editors must learn new skills, but they are a vital part of our future.