GAH: BuzzFeed launches new corrections policy, free style guide

How do you correct a listicle?

If you’re Shani Hilton, this is the kind of thing you have to think about. Her official title at BuzzFeed is deputy editor-in-chief, but internally she’s also known as Keeper of the Standards. She is their Gandalf of style, standards and corrections.

So, right, how do you correct a listicle? You can go read for yourself as of today. Hilton came up with a new corrections policy that just went live online as part of BuzzFeed’s public release of its Style Guide. It’s free for anyone to access.

GAH, OOPS

One part of the new BuzzFeed corrections policy, which was first implemented about six weeks ago, is that the correction’s tone should match with the type of content it’s being added to.

“With the new [correction] format it’s more flexible and intended to fit content as varied as a long from reported story to a short political news item to a list,” she said. “[I]t feels weird and totally off to put at the bottom of fun or heartwarming list this really stodgy correction.”

So the new policy makes to clear that it’s okay to have a little fun with your correction, provided it fits with the story. Here’s an example of an acceptable correction from the new policy:

OOPS: Kim Kardashian’s favorite selfie pose is the smize. An earlier version of this post said her favorite selfie pose is duckface.

The key, according to the new policy, is that a humorous correction contain “the basic building blocks — ‘we got something wrong, and here is the correct information’; whereas for a news error, the language should be more sober and direct.”

As for labeling a correction for readers, “A dumb mistake on a list of weird facts about Love Actually can begin: ‘GAH.’ An error of fact in a news story should usually be labeled ‘CORRECTION.’”

Overall, the goal with the new corrections policy is to ensure BuzzFeed writers can do them quickly and easily, and to prevent staff from trying to avoid admitting their mistakes, according to Hilton. It’s also about getting corrections out at Web speed.

The opening paragraph of the new policy lays out the values that underpin the tactics:

Corrections are important for two reasons: First, because we need to be right. And second, because transparency is a core value for BuzzFeed. That’s why you don’t hear us saying things externally that you don’t hear internally or vice versa; that’s why we are so open to engaging critics on Twitter and elsewhere. We live in the social conversation, and we can’t hide from it. And while every error is a weakness, some errors are inevitable, and fully and openly correcting them is a strength.

(I was not involved in the creation of the new BuzzFeed corrections policy, but I did send along some suggested readings after editor-in-chief Ben Smith emailed me before Christmas.)

I’m happy to see BuzzFeed come up with a very simple, useful policy, and that it reflects the culture and content of the organization. It’s also great that the policy encourages BuzzFeed’s writers to “mention the correction on all channels the story went out on — if you tweeted it, tweet the correction, etc.” and to offer credit to people who point out errors. These are valuable community-building activities that increase the power of corrections.

I also suggested to Hilton that as Keeper of the Standards she should write a weekly listicle of their best corrections.

“I’m taking note of that idea, ” she said, which I consider to be a WIN.

Corrections in the CMS

BuzzFeed currently has its writers append a correction to a piece of content, but that process will soon change. Hilton said BuzzFeed plans to integrate a field in its custom CMS where writers can add a correction or update to a story. (A field like this in its system is called a “subbuzz,” for any CMS geeks out there) This ensures all corrections will show up in the same place on a story, with the same formatting.

“You put the information in and it gives you the date and timestamp and formatting automatically,” Hilton said. “A kind of cool thing is you can sometimes find a technical solution to make things slightly easier for people.”

Along with the ease of use, and consistency for readers, this will also mean Hilton can easily pull up a list of all articles with corrections. She currently requires that all corrections are cc’d to the corrections@BuzzFeed.com email address so she can keep track and spot patterns. 

Hilton said they’ve also been talking about finding a way to offer a “button where you could click on any story and see every change that’s been made.” Kind of a NewsDiffs for BuzzFeed. I hope they do it.

Web style

The corrections policy is by no means the only part of the new BuzzFeed style guide that was put online for free today. It also includes guidance on spelling and grammar, a la BuzzFeed.

“It’s important there is is a style guide that tells you how to spell ‘wack’ properly,” Hilton said. 

One section of the style guide is dedicated to “words we use a lot, and that are kind of Internet native. For example, for the group NSYNC you don’t use the asterisk.”

Some organizations, such as Yahoo! and AP, charge for their style guide, but Hilton said they made sure to offer the BuzzFeed guide for free.

“There’s not really a style guide that works for the Web, and our thought was this could be that for people who need it,” she said.

But isn’t releasing this free style guide actually part of a sinister plot to BuzzFeed-ify the web?

“We’re trying to help,” Hilton said, laughing.

(But she hesitated before answering!)

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  • Jonathan Rick

    Great article! On a related subject, do you know of any editorial style guides — i.e., their “house style” — from big publishers like BuzzFeed, for Twitter?

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