How to conduct a corrections audit & what Poynter learned from ours

At our weekly Poynter Online staff call two weeks ago, we conducted a corrections audit.

Mallary Tenore’s story earlier that week about misspelled names, and why they plague journalists and news organizations, led Poynter Online director Julie Moos to ask Tenore and me to look over the site’s recent corrections for notable trends or red flags.

Tenore found that roughly 16 percent of our corrections from January of this year through late May involved those pesky misspelled names.

I may hold the record for the post with the most misspellings of one name, as evidenced by this correction:

Correction: The original version of this post included several misspellings of Mark Prendergast’s last name. Three of the incorrect spellings were “Prendgast,” “Prendersgast” and “Pendergast.”

Tenore also noticed that we often issued corrections due to misquotes.

Along with those common categories of error, I noticed that we frequently issued corrections for incorrect assertions. For example, here’s a recent correction that fits the description:

Correction: This post originally stated that the WTVJ edited video aired on the “Today” show. It did not. The edited video that aired on “Today” came from NBC’s Southeastern headquarters.

During the meeting I speculated this happens when we make an assumption that seems accurate but wasn’t specifically addressed by a source.

I know that was the case with this correction:

Correction: This story originally said The Washington Post decided to investigate the D.C. police’s homicide closure rate after reading Laura Amico’s December post for Homicide Watch DC. In fact, Jeff Leen says the Post learned of her story in the course of its reporting.

Moos, who leads the website’s editorial and business teams, set the tone for the discussion by saying,”We will make errors, so it’s about how to reduce them, and not make preventable mistakes.”

She also reviewed our current corrections process.

“We have a specific editorial and publishing process for corrections — they’re sent to the person who edited the piece and they’re added to the story and to our main corrections page, which is linked in the footer of every page of our site so it’s easily accessible,” she explained later in an email.

Adding a correction to the offending piece and having a dedicated online corrections page are two core components of a good online corrections procedure.

As a team, we also discussed how we could do a better job preventing errors in our work. That led to us share some tips:

  • Start every interview by asking a source to spell his name and title.
  • Repeat quotes back to sources if you’re unsure of what you heard, or when they say something particularly important or surprising.
  • If you have something in a story you’re unsure of, or that you had trouble with, be sure to note that for your editor to ensure she gives it a close look.
  • Don’t be afraid to call or email your source(s) back if you need them to clarify something. At the end of every interview, Tenore said she asks sources a version of this question, “I may have a couple follow-ups or fact-checking questions for you as I’m writing the piece. What’s the fastest way to reach you later today?”

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a big proponent of accuracy checklists, and I hope to have news to share relatively soon about a checklist-related project for Poynter. We intend to use a checklist as part of our prevention program but don’t have specifics yet.

Names and titles

One notable decision we made as a team was that between now and the end of June we will focus on checking names and titles. We set a goal as a team to not make any name/title errors during this period, and to all make an extra effort to check them in our writing and editing work.

After the call, Jeff Sonderman sent out an email to our team email list with this picture attached:

Yep, he put a little reminder on his workspace to ensure he remembers to focus on names and titles. Call it a mini-checklist. That led others to draft their own desktop reminder and post a photo. Here’s mine:

In the two weeks since we started our new initiative, we have one amusing naming mishap to share. Andrew Beaujon wrote a story that ended up adding an accent to a name that didn’t require one. How did that happen? I’ll let him explain:

I actually inserted an accent where none was required. When I typed out his name, I checked it against the screen, dutifully adding the diacritical. It wasn’t till I saw the same writer’s name an hour later on something different that I noticed he didn’t have an accent. I emailed him, and he told me no accent. I could not for the life of me figure out how I’d imagined an accent into existence until I looked back at my original tab. Yep, screen was dirty, right above the “o.”

So here’s one more error prevention tip: keep your computer screen clean!

Here’s a shot of Beaujon’s grimy monitor, featuring the phantom accent on “Santos”:

We also have a notable title error to share.

The story, “How Atlantic Media magazines, websites hire for intellect, generosity, digital dexterity,” included an incorrect title for Tim Hartman. The genesis of this mistake highlights the need to confirm titles with the person in question, even if you consult a seemingly authoritative source.

Moos edited the story and in the process of verifying titles she checked the company website for an official bio. That listed a different title than the one in the story.

“I should have asked the writer where she got the title she used (which was also wrong) but I didn’t,” she said this week. “I just subbed in the title used in the official bio. Lesson relearned: When there’s a conflict between spellings or titles, check with the author and find two sources that match before declaring one spelling or title correct.”

A good tip to remember.

Conducting a corrections audit

Overall I’d say this was a satisfying and encouraging process, and now our team has a shared accuracy focus for the coming weeks. Thanks to some useful and frank communication, we’re on the same page. That in itself is a powerful tool for prevention.

If you’d like to do your own corrections audit, here are a few steps to follow:

  • Have team members review their recent corrections, and look at the corrections from colleagues. Ask them to identify patterns or notable items.
  • Have an open and non-confrontational conversation with your team. Share what each of you learned from the corrections review, and encourage everyone to talk about trends, tips and concerns. This is more productive than singling out specific people. (If someone does have a problem with mistakes, a manager should meet with them one-on-one.)
  • Have the team leader(s) communicate what they expect in terms of accuracy, and the proper way to make corrections. Reinforce that an uncorrected error is the worst kind of error. Invite suggestions for improving the corrections policy.
  • Share tips and suggestions to help make fewer errors.
  • Come up with a specific prevention effort, and get everyone on the team to participate. Perhaps you can think up rewards or ways to recognize good work. Be sure to give the initiative a specific time frame, as that helps everyone focus.
  • Check in about the initiative every week or two and see how things are going.
  • Conduct a final wrap-up meeting to review how the initiative went and share lessons learned. Then work on creating new policies and procedures that incorporate best practices.

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  • Clayton Burns

    –Repeat quotes back to sources if you’re unsure of what you heard, or
    when they say something particularly important or surprising.

    It is not always going to be the best method. If you read it back to someone she may hear what she said in your statement. Even if you distorted it. I like the Scott Maier comment in that regard.

    The worst is a blaring headline that totally misrepresents the story.

    Some are easy, such as 12 dead in gang violence since August, when that number includes wounded.

    However, if you get badly burned by a headline, a journalist may say that he didn’t write it, as if that were an excuse. Writers should always sign off on headlines so that they reflect not only the facts but the writer’s understanding of the story.

    Poynter is doing a good job on the corrections file. But the issues are not all downstream. Upstream, journalism programs should have power courses in Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition” and in the COBUILD English Grammar. Greater global intelligence focusing power will help prevent errors.

    The phantom accent is a beauty.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1513449668 Scott Maier

    I would add to the corrections checklist a technique that I learned from Pulitizer-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder: End a conversation by conducting the interview in reverse.

    In other words, take five minutes to go over with your source the highlights you’ve captured in your notes. Chances are you will catch an error or misguided assumption as well as weed out fuzzy assertions and over-statement by the source. Better yet,  your source will invariably add detail, provide clarification, and suggest new angles that will make your story even better.

    It works every time!