How ‘communicating imperfection’ can increase readers’ trust in journalists

After studying corrections from three newspapers in different parts of the world, Zohar Kampf and Efrat Daskal concluded that journalists don’t “understand the great ethical potential in corrections.”

That sometimes leads to corrections that are “incomprehensible, ambiguous texts, devoid of any significant content or meaning for the readers,” according to their paper, “Communicating Imperfection: The Ethical Principles of News Corrections,” which was published in the journal Communication Theory. Kampf is a professor and Daskal is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of communication and journalism at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In an email exchange, they identified the main barrier to effective correction for journalists and news organizations: a culture of shame around errors.

Newspapers shouldn’t be ashamed of errors or fear them, they said. “They are inevitable part of any human conduct, especially one that is restricted with deadlines. If editors and journalist will internalize this idea we will have a better profession, one that confronts criticism with respect.”

I like to say that a correction is an act of promotion that builds trust. The public does not expect us to be perfect. They are in fact suspicious of a news organization that never admits an error.

As the title of Kampf and Daskal’s paper suggests, we need to become more comfortable with — and better at — “communicating imperfection.”

Kampf and Daskal set out criteria for an ideal correction:

An ideal corrective text should overtly accept responsibility by using a performative marker, such as an apology, which points to the ethical positioning of a transgressor vis-à-vis the offence and the offended party and may also serve as a compensational gesture toward the offended; it should acknowledge and describe the offense, including the flawed procedure leading to its occurrence and its consequences; and it should identify the offender and the offended parties as such.

The above captures how much a correction is supposed to do in a small amount of space. A correction is often one sentence, tucked away. And yet we expect so much: It must repair damage; it must demonstrate a commitment to accountability; it must be clear about the error and the correct material.

It seems unfair to expect so much from something that is given such little prominence. And yet this is an argument for how fundamentally powerful the correction can and should be, if only we were willing to invest more effort.

That’s why Kampf and Daskal call upon news organizations to include more information in corrections.

“We think that our most bald suggestion is to disclose more information on the journalistic practices that have lead to errors,” they told me. “Such exposure of backstage information (with needed limitations, of course) may be of value to readers who will know more about journalists’ methods and routines and, as a result, will better understand the complexities and difficulties involved in serious journalistic work.”

Corrections study

For their study, they analyzed print corrections from three newspapers: Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth, USA Today, and the U.K.’s Daily Express. The sample of close to 1,500 corrections was drawn from an initial data set of thousands of corrections from between 1968 and 2008 for Yedioth Ahronoth, and from 1998 to 2008 for the other two publications.

Kampf and Daskal write that they selected these outlets because they fall into the category of the “‘Serious-Popular Press,’ lying at the center of the continuum between the serious press and tabloid newspapers.”

They examined the corrections to see whether they contained the four elements of what they called the “textual model of accountability”: (1) the corrective marker (2) the offender (3) the offense, and (4) the offended party.

A corrective marker is any “form of symbolic responsibility and/or any compensatory marker.” For example, the phrase “we regret the error” would qualify as a corrective marker.

The main example of a corrective marker in the collected corrections was a headline such as “Corrections.” While it may be a proper label, Kampf and Daskal view the lack of a marker within the correction text itself as a failure of accountability.

“The preference to include a corrective marker in the headline which does not count as an explicit admission of responsibility, and to avoid responsibility markers in the body of the correction, seems to indicate the tendency to create the appearance of an ethical response while blurring actual responsibility for the error,” they write.

Kampf and Daskal found that overall the papers were good at indicating when the original error had appeared, and that the print corrections tend to appear within one week of the original error. In terms of location, USA Today and the Daily Express both have a set location in print for corrections. Yedioth Ahronoth, however, places corrections in different parts of the paper.

“In most cases (82%) the error and the correction appear in the same section of the newspaper, but within these cases, the correction more often appears on a later page than does the erroneous publication,” they write.

When it came to specifying the party guilty of making the error, the researchers found the vast majority of corrections do not name a specific person or role. In my experience, most organizations take the approach that every error is a collective mistake and therefore don’t specify a guilty party. The New York Times stands out for specifically stating whether a mistake was due to an editing error. (Or a source error.)

Kampf and Daskal also found that corrections rarely state the cause of an error. Certainly, part of this is the space constraints of a printed correction. But even online, with unlimited space, you don’t see a reason given for a mistake.

The authors see this as a major missed opportunity for news organizations to provide readers with a better “understanding of the complexities of journalistic work.”

Overall, the data showed that most corrections —the lowest percentage was 79 percent at USA Today — make it reasonably clear what the original mistake was, and what the correct information is. However, they also found that between six and 21 percent of the corrections studied made “no sense.”

Thick corrections

Kampf and Daskal advocate news organizations offer what they call “thick corrections.”

Thick corrections provide a more complete picture of the offense and the organization’s sense of accountability for it. They have a greater potential to actually repair damage and forge a stronger connection with the audience, according to Kampf and Daskal. In contrast, “thin corrections” are when the minimum possible information is offered, sometimes resulting in confusion or frustration for the reader and any offended party.

“Thick corrections should contain information about the nature of offence, the processes leading to the error within the news organization and identify the offended party as such,” they told me. A good correction “should be contextualized in a way that allows readers to fully reconstruct the inaccurate initial publication. It is quite rare to find a correction that includes all four textual elements that corresponds with the all journalistic and accountability values.”

They also suggest that social media and other digital channels are ideal “for communicating imperfection.” These mediums offer “a constant and enduring arena for engaging the public in open discussion with journalists about press practices and performances, and, at the interpersonal level, it may serve as a means of symbolically compensating specific victims.”

In this respect, a correction becomes a piece of content that journalists can enhance and personalize in ways that add value to it, while bringing additional attention. This act helps add heft to a correction, but it also helps it meets its goals more than ever before.

But, first, more journalists need to embrace the fact that every correction, no matter how much it hurts your pride, is a chance to demonstrate your values and build rapport.

A correction is an opportunity.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Arthur_P_Dent

    I was always told that apologies, “regret the error” or similar statements opened the paper to legal liability because they can be viewed as an admission of guilt.

  • Gutted

    I abandoned journalism as a professional because of this. A lot of us j-school grads did. The talent pool went elsewhere. Our content was judged far too much by word count and the sparse errors that come with conforming to AP style. AP style will be just a spellcheck software soon when they get desperate enough for new stringers. Now you have Vice Magazine and Buzzfeed of all things taking up the investigative hardline. One day I hope to come back.

  • Scott Feldman

    Newspapers shouldn’t be ashamed of errors or fear them, they said. “They are inevitable part of any human conduct, especially one that is restricted with deadlines. If editors and journalist will internalize this idea we will have a better profession, one that confronts criticism with respect.”

    I think every reporter with any conscience whatsoever feels pain in the pit of their stomach whenever an error is published. But sometimes the culture of shame isn’t only caused by internal guilt from a reporter, but it’s reinforced by the culture of the newsroom.

    At a newspaper I worked at in the past, I was berated and insulted by my editor whenever I had to write a correction, regardless of its severity or importance.The same thing happened to several of my peers. It’s difficult to not feel ashamed of errors when my superiors made it clear I should feel terribly ashamed of every error.

    Anyone else ever have an editor who blew corrections way out of proportion? Or installed punitive measures for corrections without considering extenuating circumstances?

    I agree with the article’s idea that corrections should be embraced and promoted, I just have a hard time envisioning that happening anytime soon.

  • https://twitter.com/MikeSaffran Mike Saffran

    Regarding identifying the ‘guilty party’ … and “most organizations take the
    approach that every error is a collective mistake”: I favor corrections that specify “due to an editing error” or “due to a reporting error” — because, although errors are inevitable, the pressure of deadlines isn’t always to blame. In specifying “reporting error,” for example, less carelessness possibly could be encouraged, in some instances (without mentioning any names).

  • Patrick@62

    Craig – Liked the story and the links. Applies to corporates as well (which is my main focus). The authors of the study acknowledge this. I may have missed it in my quick read of this piece and the link to your previous piece and the synopsis of the original paper, but where is the support that “thicker” corrections generate trust? My bias says it’s true, but I was looking for the research to ‘verify’ it in this case. Can you point me in that direction?
    Thanks,
    Pat