TBD reporter Amanda Hess knows what a difference the letter “n” can make.
In the original version of her blog post about HIV-positive black gay men last Friday, Hess reported that “one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive.” She meant to say “one in three black men who have sex with men.” Oops.
Hess said in a phone interview that about 10 minutes after publishing the blog post, she saw a tweet about the typo and then posted a correction. More readers started to pick up on it early this week, calling it “the greatest correction ever,” “a doozy” and “the correction heard ’round the world.”
The posts on Hess’ blog — which addresses “sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street” — are not usually edited before they’re published, so it’s not unusual for an occasional typo to slip through, Hess said. While she normally wouldn’t write a correction for a typo, she decided to make an exception in this case.
“I felt like because there was the possibility of me being embarrassed, I should put a correction on it,” she said. “Also, I knew a couple of people had already seen it, and it’s one of those typos that could be an error if, in fact, taken literally.”
TBD’s efforts to acknowledge the typo show how a news organization can stand by its commitment to accuracy and turn a mistake into an opportunity to gain credibility.
TBD staffers tweeted about the correction when they realized how many readers were talking about it. TBD Senior Community Host Jeff Sonderman wrote a blog post about the chatter surrounding it. And, at the suggestion of TBD Editor Erik Wemple, Hess went on TBD TV Tuesday afternoon to talk about it.
Hess told me she’s afraid all the attention to the correction detracted from the seriousness of the problems that HIV-positive black men face. “I didn’t realize that anyone would read it or pass it around as much as they did,” she said. “It’s good publicity, but I think it was overplayed.”
Sonderman said that as of Wednesday morning, Hess’ post had generated more than 16,000 clickthroughs, about 3,000 up votes on Reddit and hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts. Gawker, Fark and The Huffington Post were just a few of the sites that picked up on it.
It would have been easier to fix the typo, pretend that nothing happened and avoid all the media coverage.
“But this is a good example of how you can make sure you step up and acknowledge what was there before and what you changed in a transparent way,” Sonderman said by phone. “I thought it was a good move to show we’re going to correct our errors even if it means looking a little goofy.”
These days, many in the Fifth Estate and even some in the Fourth Estate view journalism as a process that involves publishing information and confirming it along the way.
But Wemple and Steve Buttry, TBD’s director of community engagement, have described TBD as a nontraditional journalism organization that’s “really old fashioned” when it comes to its commitment to accuracy.
In a blog post that was published before the site’s August launch, they wrote: “We will be as aggressive in correcting our mistakes as we were in making them. Each article or blog item that includes a mistake will carry highly visible correction. … The corrections policy will apply to all errors of fact as well as misspellings of proper nouns and the like. Errors that can be classified as typos will get a pass.”
Although TBD doesn’t have a “Corrections” link on its home page, the site makes it easy for readers to get in touch with staffers when they see an error. Every staff member has a bio page, which includes an e-mail address and Twitter handle. There’s also a “Contact Us” link at the bottom of each article page.
Sonderman is one of several staffers who follows up with readers when they report a correction. Responding to them is important, he says, because it shows that TBD values their feedback.
“We often ask the online community that reads our site to share their experiences and help us complete stories,” Sonderman said. “I think that if you’re going to have that kind of relationship with users, it’s important to be generally open about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it in-house. It’s important that they see what we do wrong as well as what we do right.”
News organizations have never been particularly good at admitting they’re wrong. Scott Maier, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication
who researched newspaper corrections, has found that fewer than 2 percent of the factual errors identified by news sources are corrected. He also found that when a news organization does admit it’s wrong, the public is more likely to trust it.
Hess said a lot of people have congratulated her for being so transparent about her error. In the future, she plans to be more vigilant when self-editing her blog posts.
“I’m not going to lie; I’m going to make mistakes in the future,” Hess said. “But this one will probably have me on my toes for a little while.”