Washington Post clarifies practices and standards for corrections

In an email to staff this morning, The Washington Post clarified its practices and standards for online corrections. The email was signed by three top editors, including Executive Editor Marty Baron, and was a succinct expression of the paper’s method for adding corrections online. 

The full memo follows, with some context and commentary from me.

In an effort to ensure that errors online are corrected as quickly as possible, we want to clarify our standards in this area and announce some changes to the process.

* We are committed to accuracy and transparency. We generally revise the story to make it accurate AND append a correction to the file. Typically, online corrections read like this: “Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported …”

It always boggles my mind when I see an online article that has a correction but that also leaves the mistake within the text of the story. Nice to see the Post be clear about the need to add a correction and fix the mistake within the text. The two go hand in hand.

* We should never “unpublish” stories from the Web. Once a story is up, however, the content can be removed with the approval of a senior editor. In those rare cases when we remove the content of a story from the page, it must be replaced with an editor’s note explaining the reason for the deletion. For example if an embargo has been broken, the note would read: “Editors’ Note: This article was published inadvertently and has been removed.”

This is the right standard when it comes to unpublishing. First of all, you try to never unpublish. But if you do have to remove content, be sure to publish an explanation/apology at the same URL.

One thing the memo doesn’t make clear is what the standard is for unpublishing. That standard has hopefully been made clear to the senior editors who make this call. If they don’t have a playbook for making the decision, the Post should create one.

Also, if the paper goes to the trouble of removing text and adding an editor’s note, it should ideally offer more context than the example offered in the memo; the note should explicitly tell readers why the article was removed. “Published inadvertently” is needlessly vague.

* An editor must be involved in cases of substantive errors. Reporters should not ask producers to correct stories. An online correction can be approved by either a section assignment editor or an editor on the Universal Desk. Of course, speed is key. If the assignment editor is not immediately available, e-mail the Universal desk at universal@washpost.com and copy the assignment editor. Editors can find instructions for posting online corrections here.

It’s nice to see the Post lay out instructions for posting corrections. But as with the previous example about unpublishing, there’s uncertainty about what the paper considers to be a “substantive error.”

We can assume plagiarism and fabrication fall into that category, but what about errors that undermine a story’s central thesis? Is it enough to correct the factual mistake(s) but to not consider whether the article was fundamentally flawed?

Being clear about the standard for “substantive” errors will help reporters know what to do.

* The page for submitting corrections on The Source has been updated with two new fields: a box for the URL of the story, and a box for the text of the online correction. Your online correction should already be up by the time you file a correction for the print edition. When copy editors sign off on a print correction, they will check the online correction and change it if the two are not in sync.

I like this workflow; it ensures consistency between print and online corrections.

* Placement for corrections reflects gravity of error. A serious error must be noted at the top of the story, blog or graphic. For smaller errors, corrections can be appended at the bottom as a footnote, and noted next to the error in the text of the story. In blogs, the tone of the correction can in some cases be made to match the tone of the blog, and a strike-thru is an acceptable alternative. For galleries, photo caption corrections should be placed underneath the photo’s caption. If a correction is needed to reflect the removal of a photo from a gallery, it should appear in the blurb of the gallery. Corrections can be posted directly into a video blurb.

Here again we confront the issue of what constitutes a “serious error.” (Before it was “substantive.”) Placing some corrections as a footnote, others as a strikethrough, and still others at the top of content will create confusion for the reader, and for Post journalists. Picking one standard and sticking with it across stories and blogs is easier for staff and better for readers.

On the positive side, offering specific direction for where/how to add corrections to videos and photo galleries is useful. I also like that the memo makes it clear that journalists can write a correction that matches the tone of a blog.

* Clarifications should be rare and must be approved by the editor-in-chief, or managing editors.

The memo offers no background on the difference between a correction and a clarification. I imagine some in the newsroom may be wondering about that, just as I am. Also, what’s the difference between an editor’s note and a clarification? For the sake of clarity, it would be better to have corrections and editor’s notes and leave it at that. Too many forms of corrections, and locations for them, is a recipe for confusion and poor execution.

Note that contrary to widespread belief, there is no policy against “repeating the error.” We generally do say exactly what was wrong, to make it absolutely clear what is being corrected.

Credit to the Post for the way this point is clearly expressed, and for embracing one standard for all corrections.