April 3, 2014

Max Read recently took over as the editor of Gawker and — drunk with power — he laid down the law regarding corrections.

In a memo blogged by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon, Read’s new policy is notable for what it tells writers not to do:

For corrections, rather than strikethrough, change the wording and link from there to a comment noting the corrected text, as Tom does here: http://gawker.com/thanks-ill-correct-it-and-link-down-to-this-correctio-1554296985.

Ah, the strikethrough. As something of an old fogie blogger (since 2003 y’all!) I have an affinity for using strikethrough as a way to offer a quick correction.

The strikethrough is great because it’s an efficient and contextual way to show readers you messed something up, to be clear about what it was, and to also show where it happened.

The strikethrough correction is a speedy form of transparency. It’s so bloggy.

Even the Washington Post’s online corrections policy says it’s okay for Post blogs to use the strikethrough:

Minor mistakes may be corrected and acknowledged within the blog post, using either strike-through text or parentheses.

But I humbly bow before Gawker Corrections King Max Read. He has ascended a very bloggy throne — and made a bold and correct call to banish the strikethrough correction from the realm.

Reasons for striking the strikethrough

First, he notes that the strikethrough does not always show up for readers, which is an undoubtedly important point:

It’s HTML styling, and it gets stripped in Google searches, RSS, tweets, through copy-pastes, etc., completely fucking up our meaning, especially in headlines

“We should strive to make our writing clear and precise even absent any text formatting,” Kaiser Read wrote.

If you use strikethrough to make a correction and it doesn’t show up across all platforms, then it’s no good. The act of correction has been defeated.

Another concern with strikethrough corrections is that this push-button fix actually introduces an element of complexity. The Post’s corrections policy distinguishes between “major errors” and “minor errors,” and says the strikethrough is good for the latter.

Who gets to decide when something is major or minor? The journalist who made the mistake? Uh-oh.

Sure, most people may agree that a typo that doesn’t introduce a factual error or alternate meaning is a minor error. But other calls are not so clear.

By creating two classes of error, you’re adding another layer of decision making to the correction process. Is this a strikethrough correction or an add-it-at-the-bottom-of-the-post correction?

This opens to door to delays and new problems.

Keep it simple and people will offer corrections more frequently. One style, for all errors.


I’m also falling out of love with the strikethrough correction because, as the Caliph of Corrections notes in his memo, the strikethrough is also used as a way to make a joke. He is also correct that “Jokes made using strikethrough are generally not worth saving.”

Unfortunately, these jokes are made often enough to muddy the water for a strikethrough correction. Why take the chance that people think you’re doing a funny-ha-ha strikethrough and not a dead serious correction?

One last argument against strikethrough corrections: they can ruin the flow for a reader, and get in the way of a more complete correction.

As a corrections nerd, I love that a strikethrough correction shows up exactly where the error occurred. But as a reader, it can be something of a speed bump.

There’s a better way to provide the context of an error and to offer a correction that gives more to the reader.

In the decree, His Majesty Max pointed to an example of the kind of correction he wants to see at Gawker:

* Correction: This item initially misidentified Wieseltier as a congregant at Adas Israel, the Conservative synagogue to which Brooks belongs. In fact, Wieseltier belongs to Kesher Israel, a modern Orthodox one located in Georgetown. Writes Wieseltier: “This is not just a journalistic delinquency. It is also a metaphysical one.” Gawker regrets the error.

See the asterisk at the beginning of the correction? I call that the Slate asterisk because they have been using it for many years in corrections.

As shown by Slate and now Gawker, a great way to do an online correction is to add an asterisk at the end of the sentence where the error occurred, and then to put the correction at the bottom of the text, with another asterisk.

This means you’ve connected the context and correction for the reader — and you have more space to offer as much information in the correction as is needed.

Or even a funny quote, as in the above!

Well, at the behest of the Emperor of Elizabeth Street, I’ve given my old friend the strikethrough correction a thorough flogging.

But allow me a few words in favor of the strikethrough as a harbinger of transparency.

Strikethrough as Track Changes

The strikethrough is an old and venerable device, and it has gone through many incarnations.

Centuries ago, a red line through text was in fact used to call out a particular passage, rather than eliminate it. Here’s an example from the Domesday Book, which was completed in 1086:

But over time it evolved to signal something an editor or proofreader wanted removed. Microsoft Word probably did more to popularize the strikethrough than anything else, thanks to its Track Changes feature.

Suddenly, anyone could mark up a document like an editor or proofreader.

“Tracking changes is often a good way to communicate,” wrote Ruth Walker in The Christian Science Monitor. “But if the editorial process is emotionally fraught, or involves people who are not fully at home on the computer, or both, track-changes can send editors round the bend.”

Yes, the strikethrough has its place. It shouldn’t be something that gets in the way of reading, understanding, or a healthy professional relationship.

I’m in favor of the strikethrough as a way of showing the changes and evolution of an online story or piece of text.

If, as they say, news today is a process, then readers should be able to see the changes being made over time. This argument was made eloquently by Scott Rosenberg, and he also helped get a related WordPress plug-in created.

NewsDiffs is also an attempt to show people the changes being made to stories by media outlets, even if the publications themselves don’t do it.

As noted in a New York Times article from 2007, the strikethrough-as-transparency also has a place in other kinds of documents:

If bills were created under a system where strike-throughs and additions were carefully tracked, the public would know which legislator made which change to a proposed piece of legislation as it made its way through the Capitol.

Ancient bloggers like me may initially beat our chests about the Shah of Snark’s stake to the heart of the strikethrough correction.

But its death can be a clarion call to throw open the gates and find new ways to let the people see what’s really going on inside the kingdom.

Long live King Max!

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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