By all means, avoid mistakes on election night. Brush up on AP style. Make sure people know what to do vis-a-vis social media. But unless you think journalism has somehow evolved into a higher state since last week, when fake photos and faker news made landfall alongside Hurricane Sandy, it’s also important to familiarize yourself with your organization’s corrections policy. That way if something does go wrong, you can handle it in a responsible manner.
Poynter corrections maven Craig Silverman says a good corrections policy has three elements:
a clear statement of the organization’s approach to accuracy and its commitment to correcting errors; an indication of how it intends to handle and encourage requests for correction; and an outline of how it expresses and delivers corrections.
Many news outlets have such a policy to handle print corrections. Online corrections are less consistent — some publications will change a mistake without acknowledgment; others mark every jot and tittle (and for some sites, readers can check NewsDiffs). Goofs in social media are still the Wild West of corrections policies and procedures.
“The principle with social media is that if you shared the incorrect content via social media, then you also need to share the correction there well,” Silverman says. “We have a responsibility to promote a correction as much as the original, offending report. That’s the whole idea of the correction: to get the correct information out to people, and admit our mistake.”
Deleting a boneheaded tweet — or disappearing an incorrect story — does not check that box. “If it’s important enough to tweet or otherwise share the info, then it’s important enough to also share the correction,” Silverman says.
“I always tell our employees that the coverup (i.e. quiet deletion ) of a social media error is worse than the error itself in the eyes of our readers and competitors,” says Mandy Jenkins, interactives editor at Digital First Media. “It’s a matter of trust — if we make mistakes, we own up to them, quickly and transparently.”
“A simple principle is to map the correction to the original error,” Silverman says. “So if the mistake went in print, to the Web, and to Twitter via your account, then you need to send the correction to the same places. Along with mapping it to the original channels, you should also make an effort to help the correction spread: reply to people who retweeted the incorrect information and ask them to RT the correction; post the correction on influential Facebook pages that also posted the incorrect information, etc. This is mere minutes of work, but it demonstrates accountability and can help fix your mistake.”
I surveyed a number of news organizations about their corrections policies, especially as they relate to social media.
McClatchy doesn’t have a written corrections policy, Washington Bureau chief James Asher writes in an email. “But we do correct all errors, in stories, in tweets and on the blogs that appear on our website,” Asher writes. “We also circulate all our corrections to the papers that get our work so they can publish them.”
Asher says McClatchy doesn’t have “a process for knowing about or correcting errors on staffers’ personal accounts.” In a memo to staffers sent in September, he urged the company’s journalists to take it easy on social media: “In a partisan world we can damage our journalism if we slip and post a tweet or Facebook account that has a political point of view,” the memo read. “So be careful.”
At The Guardian, corrections are the purview of Readers’ Editor Chris Elliott, who, in “consultation with the editor and/or managing editor,” is charged with deciding “whether and when a correction should be published and/or apologies tendered, when deemed necessary.” (Here’s a fuller explanation of the readers’ editor’s role.)
Guardian U.S. spokesperson Gennady Kolker says the organization’s social media guidelines “are based on common sense: all staff are advised to use journalistic discretion. In those rare cases, inaccurate tweets are clarified or corrected at both the official account and staff account level.”
In an email to staffers Monday morning, Guardian U.S. Editor-in-Chief Janine Gibson reminded employees, “There will be many and varied opportunities tomorrow to make mistakes, call things too early and generally get things wrong. Please be very careful when reporting or commenting via social media. We are interested in being right, not first.”
Digital First Media doesn’t have a company-wide policy for corrections, says Jenkins. Those are left to the individual newspapers. (She cites the New Haven Register’s policy as “among the best.”)
“My suggestion on handling social media errors isn’t much different from corrections on any other sort of medium — we want to be open about the error and diligent about correcting the information wherever we can,” Jenkins writes in an email. “First, admit the error openly and publicly as a separate update. Be specific about what was wrong and, if relevant, how it happened.”
If you can edit your post to reflect the correction, do so in a way that shows what you changed. You can do this on Google+, blogs, Tumblr and Pinterest (for instance).
On Twitter and Facebook, you don’t have the option of editing past posts. On Facebook, I tend to add the correction in as both a separate post and a comment on the original post. On Twitter, the best option is to send a corrected tweet noting it as such (CORRECTION: xxxx).
I generally lean against deleting past posts, but there are circumstances where it might make sense. Because our corrections are rarely tied to a previously published tweet or Facebook post, it is easy for the false original to still get passed around with the user left unawares that it has been corrected. If deletion is the only way you see to stop the spread of a false post – particularly in matters of public safety – then you just might have to do it. If it comes down to this, snap a screenshot to post with the correction or otherwise note the absence of the former post.
At the Los Angeles Times, “Our stance is that a new tweet with the correct information is the best way to acknowledge our error while recognizing that many users will have read and retweeted the original,” says spokesperson Nancy Sullivan. “We expect a similar level of forthrightness from individual staffers.” She offers this corrected tweet as an example of the system working properly:
— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) September 5, 2012
Here’s the original, which says the officer died. It’s a good example of the headwinds one faces while trying to walk back incorrect information: The original was retweeted 12 times, and the correction was retweeted 10 times.
Justin Bank is the editor for social/search/audience at The Washington Post. He says, “we hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards of accuracy across all platforms, social media channels included. While there is no pro forma process for offering corrections on social media, we take this matter seriously and will make appropriate corrections as quickly as possible.” There’s also no explicit policy toward individual staffers’ accounts, Bank says. “But the ethos of getting things right is our main priority across all platforms and channels therein.”
The Chicago Tribune‘s accuracy policy is so thorough I could see Silverman keeping a copy in his vest pocket to rub during rough patches. In an email, Tribune standards editor Margaret Holt says, “our commitment to accuracy transcends publishing platform. Practically speaking, we believe it is important to fix an error promptly, whether it’s in print or online.”
The tricky part comes when we have something that is published first online and then, as the story develops, changes over a publishing cycle. We work through those with the counsel of the supervising editor and department editor.
In our guidelines, we say: If the error is straightforward, we want to fix it fast online. If we correct an error in a story published online, we need to double-check to determine if the print edition version also requires the same correction.
Our ethics policy works in tandem with the accuracy guidelines. We say in the ethics policy that those who turn to us must “be confident that the news we deliver—as text or photo, audio or video—is accurate and free of the influence of special interests, whether public or private, commercial or political, our own or that of our friends.”
Further, we have a social media section in our Editorial Code of Principles. It notes: Integrity is a core value. Our ethical principles do not change, even as we work across multiple platforms and in differing media. Put another way, the standards that guide our behavior as journalists, including those listed elsewhere in the Tribune Code and in local guidelines, apply online as they do offline.