How journalists can do a better job of correcting errors on social media
Earlier this month I was in London to participate in the news:rewired journalism conference put on by Journalism.co.uk. My panel was about rumors, verification and corrections, and I was there to help provide some suggestions for handling corrections in the networked world.
The three other speakers on the panel each tackled different aspects of verification. I encourage you to look over their presentations, which are now now all online. It was probably the best panel about this topic I've ever been on, partly because of the amount of useful information that was shared, and because of the knowledge of the people doing the talking.
I'll give you a rundown of what I presented, but first, here's a quick look at the other speakers:
- Mark Little of social media news service Storyful, spoke about verifying masses of social media content on behalf of other news organizations, but he actually advocated for using the word "validation" rather than the other v-word. This is because verification connotes a level of certainty that often isn’t possible to achieve today. Much of what his team finds falls into grey areas, as he had previously explained to me.
- Chris Hamilton, BBC News’ social media editor, outlined some of the ways the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub works to verify content discovered on social networks. For more on that, see his slides and this great piece in the latest edition of Nieman Reports.
- Journalism professor Paul Bradshaw outlined some of the tools journalists can use to sniff out hoaxes and offered lots of great tips.
My job, as I explained to the room, was to help journalists figure out what to do if they ignored all of the excellent advice offered by my fellow panelists offered. My goal was to help them see that corrections are actually much more powerful and important than we suspect.
We will always make mistakes. The process of gathering, packaging, editing and publishing/broadcasting news is rife with opportunities for things to go wrong. Every part of the process has potential points of failure.
Preventing mistakes is of huge importance, but so too is setting the stage to correct them quickly and fully by taking advantage of the networked news environment. Doing so not only meets our obligations to the public, but can in fact build trust and help us feel better about our work as journalists. Bottom line: corrections are important.
With that in mind, here’s a run-through of my slides from the panel, with additional explanation from me. (The full presentation is also embedded below.) My focus was on the best way to deliver corrections in a networked world.
Corrections, and the associated aspiration for accuracy and fairness, have been part of journalism since before it was called journalism. The first bullet point above is a quote from the publisher of an English newsbook in the 1500s. It’s him telling readers that fairness and accuracy are paramount. We've been telling people this for a long time.
The second bullet is the earliest corrections policy I’ve been able to locate. It was written by Benjamin Harris, the man who founded the first newspaper in the United States, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick. The quote is taken from a prospectus that outlined his intentions for his publication. This is basically him saying, "If we get anything wrong, we’ll correct it in the next edition."
That’s the contract of correction -- we’ve conditioned readers to expect us to own up to our mistakes.
Finally, why 1972?
That’s the year The New York Times decided to start publishing all corrections on page A2, using the same style of language and headlines. That was a moment when a lot of American newspapers started to do the same, rather than scatter corrections throughout their editions. This helped standardize corrections.
These are key points for executing corrections. The first bullet that may strike some as confusing. Why am I talking about feelings? Because to truly regret something, you have to be able understand the feelings of those affected. So when writing a correction, think about how the wronged parties must feel. A correction that comes from a more human perspective is always going to be more effective.
The second bullet is simply a reminder that you need to write a correction that people can understand. Don’t try to minimize the impact of an error by offering a mealy-mouthed correction. This also relates to how journalists feel about our mistakes.
The only way for you as the person who made an error to be able to move on from it is to offer a full-hearted correction that does the job of helping people understand the correct information. If you focus on minimizing the error, rather than correcting it, you will not have a clear conscience.
That leads into the last bullet, which reinforces that a correction exists to promote the correct information and fix an error. When done well, it builds trust with the public, rather than destroying it.
A good thing
Law of Incorrect Tweets
This is an effect I’ve witnessed many times when it comes to errors and social media (and Twitter in particular). Let me show you what I mean.
This chart shows what happened when an NBC station in New York tweeted that police were closing the airspace over the Occupy New York. That green line is the original, mistaken tweet. The blue correction line shows how far their message got when that same account -- and the main NBC News Twitter account -- sent out a corrective tweet.
It's not even close.
So how do we make corrections spread as far and as fast as incorrect information? Keep reading for some best practices.
Repeat SM corrections
Here’s a mini case study that I previously wrote about in more detail. There are two things to note about what you see here.
First, see the correction is repeated by @BreakingNews. They are ensuring as many people see this new information as possible. One correction is not enough.
Second, note that the editors also encouraged followers to check a related account, @breakingnewseds, for more detail about how the mistake occurred, and to ask additional questions. They opened a back-channel to engage.
Here’s New York Times reporter Brian Stelter offering what I think is a very human, and therefore effective, correction. He explains the background behind the error, admits he was wrong, and points people to the correction. He used Twitter to add a personal note of regret -- not to mention a link -- to a correction. Doing so can help your correction get attention.
Activate network effect
So, about spreading your corrections. Note the first bullet. If you spread inaccurate information through different channels, you have a responsibility to spread the correct information there as well. Corrections need to spread to the same places as your content and content promotion.
The third bullet is really important. To help avoid my Law of Incorrect Tweets, you need to actively promote your correction. That means contacting people who retweeted the incorrect information and reaching out to those who reshared it on networks like Google+ etc.
It's your job to get people sharing the correction. This is also how you get the correct information to spread.
In the example above, note the number of retweets for the incorrect CNN tweet about the Supreme Court's recent health care ruling.
A Law breaker
Now look at the number of retweets for the correction. Yes, this is me seemingly undercutting my own Law of Incorrect Tweets. First off, nothing is absolute; every law gets broken. But in this case, the CNN error was so high profile that an inordinate amount of attention was fused on the correction. That’s a good thing, but it is the exception. You can't rely on this for your errors.
Remember: promote your corrections and get them moving in the right direction.
Match to channels
One other note from that CNN mistake. The network sent the incorrect information through a variety of channels, including an email alert that I show in my slides below. Then it did the right thing by pushing out the correction to the same channel.
A quick recap: Write human corrections, repeat them, help them spread, and match them to the channels you initially used.
You can review all of my slides here: