Most journalists can recall their first correction with an emotion that falls somewhere between horror and shame.
I remember the morning I read the email that led to mine. It was from a local marine biologist who wrote to say I had spelled his last name wrong.
I was immediately mortified. This was my first professional journalism internship. I had finished the story the previous afternoon on a tight deadline. I was proud of its placement in the newspaper, proud of the speed with which I’d written it, proud of the praise I had earned from my editor. It all felt instantly invalidated by four small words: “Can you correct it?”
That first experience stuck with me in the decade since. And while I would love to say I never made another mistake again, I, of course, did. It’s easy to say that I am human and fallible, as all journalists are. But I have a hard time remembering that when I receive a correction.
If anything, my paralyzing anxiety over corrections got worse when I went freelance and lost the institutional support of a newsroom. On the publication day of a big story, I found myself shaken with fear, often waiting until I heard from all the sources involved before sharing it. Other days, I would obsessively comb through old stories, wondering if an error had gone undetected.
What belief system was I subconsciously trying to confirm? That I wasn’t a good enough journalist? That I was incapable of writing an article without making a mistake? What I did realize, when I could finally come up for air from this spiralized way of thinking, was how unhealthy this behavioral pattern was. And yet I couldn’t stop myself.
Here’s the problem: I don’t think I’m entirely to blame for these mental gymnastics. The way we talk about corrections in newsrooms leads us down a binary path in which every correction is the end of the world and we must seek to avoid them at all costs. That thinking is enforced as early as journalism school — how many professors automatically give a student a failing assignment grade if their story has an error or two?
In the real world, those black-and-white consequences sometimes persist. In 2009, a newspaper intern was fired when he made three factual errors in a story. At the time, the student’s journalism professor noted, “If I had been held to the same standard, I never would have had a career in journalism.”
That inherent empathy is sometimes missing in the way we talk about corrections. Corrections are clearly a process breakdown, a sign of something needing to change in the way that we work, but also an indication that we are all simply human. In our training and treatment of journalists, that’s something I hope we don’t forget.
How do we recover from the worst corrections?
Miami New Times editor-in-chief Tom Finkel killed Irving Berlin. Well, not exactly. In a preview for a July 4 event commemorating the composer, he wrote that Berlin “would have turned 101 this year.” There was only one problem: The songwriter was still alive.
“It taught me that the first reaction is mortification,” Finkel said. “Nobody likes to make a mistake and nobody likes to publicly get caught with their pants down. It’s embarrassing.”
Finkel never forgot that mistake, but it wasn’t his last. If anything, it instilled an empathy and philosophy toward corrections that he has tried to impart to his writers at the New Times: Mistakes happen. It’s what you learn from them that matters.
“I feel that it should be a learning experience and it should be a part of the process of being a better journalist,” he said. “That’s what I try to tell writers — how are we going to avoid this in the future?”
In my own experience, editors have always been gracious and comforting about corrections, offering some form of “it’s standard” or even no reaction at all. It’s the self-inflicted mental abuse — Why did I make this mistake? What’s wrong with me? — that becomes so hard to take. Finkel has an unwitting diagnosis for me.
“If a correction causes you to have a nervous breakdown, you’re going to go insane immediately,” he said.
It’s something I’ve wondered: Is this just a part of the business and a part that I can’t take?
Victor Brand is the right expert to ask this of. Almost every correction at HuffPost went through him for years as a former standards editor and deputy managing editor at the publication. He eventually devised a method that would fill a writer like me with fear: an inbox-based system that allowed him to code each correction based on type, like a typo or an incorrect attribution, and track the person or team who received it.
Hitting the 3% threshold, when more than 3% of a team’s articles had an issue, prompted a closer look, Brand said. But the point was not to be punitive. It was meant to be an educational process.
“My approach to all of this data was that it was diagnostic,” Brand said. “Patterns like that tell you something about where there may be breakdowns in your process.”
Patterns did begin to reveal themselves. One team generally relied on peer-editing, but their copy would get published with typos. The solution had to do with the editor rather than the writer. Another person had an issue with people’s titles. When staff knew to anticipate those problems in advance, it made it easier to spot them before hitting publish.
But are all mistakes created equal? Is misspelling a name really the same sin as completely misquoting someone? Gail Rhodes, an instructor and Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, noted that there is a difference between “low-impact mistakes” and “high-impact mistakes.”
“Both are problematic, but one has a higher impact on your viewership than the other,” she said. “One could lead to someone not getting a vaccine versus the other is spelling a guy’s name wrong.”
Research bears that out. Michael Karlsson, a media professor at Karlstad University in Sweden, surveyed people in one study on two sets of corrections. In one instance, a story about a protest had to be corrected to reflect the right number of protesters — 50 versus 49. And in another case, a brawl broke out between protesters and the police at the demonstration. The story reported that the protesters started the altercation, but it was really the police.
What the study found is what journalists might hope. Survey participants were “pretty OK” with a small, corrected error, but they were “pretty far from OK” with a larger, corrected error.
It’s not always factual errors that frustrate readers. Often, it’s the general typos — like misspelled words, misplaced grammar or mispronunciations of streets or cities on television — that stay with readers.
“People get really upset when these basic things are missing,” Karlsson said. “These aspects of journalism might very well have a significant impact on trustworthiness.”
What could change
When HuffPost’s Victor Brand sent a message to someone on staff, their first reaction was usually immediate: “What have I done?” They knew a possible correction was coming.
Over time, he tried to build enough of a relationship with writers that they realized he meant well. He didn’t want to get them in trouble. That went a long way.
“I always tried to laugh about it,” he said. “The tendency is to always want to let yourself off the hook.”
He compared a correction to a car indicator, letting the driver know something is amiss. “A correction is the little red flashing light on your dashboard,” he said. “It’s the check engine light saying, ‘Something went wrong somewhere.’”
Brand’s analysis tracks with my findings. Each time I’ve received a correction — and as a friend once said, they come in waves — I’ve generally taken a step back. Often, a correction is the first sign of severe burnout for me. It’s an indicator that not just my process, but perhaps my very being, needs to be checked.
Being a woman might even play a role in my internalized conscientiousness — and I purposely use that word over one with more negative and gendered connotations, like being “high-strung” or “overly anxious.” A female reporter once told Rhodes that her heart sank every time she received an email from a reader. Her first thought was: What did I get wrong? That same reporter posed that question to her male colleague. How did he feel when he received an email from a reader? They’re going to tell me what a great article I wrote, he told her. They’re going to say they love my piece.
Rhodes would like to pursue that research — how gender affects response to corrections — in the future. It’s clear that there is pressure and stress associated with making a mistake as a woman in a male-dominated environment. That phenomenon is likely even more true for people of color in a primarily white workforce — a 2012-2016 survey found that roughly 77% of people in the news business were white. And for the young, aspiring journalists who Rhodes works with at ASU, she thinks it is possible to teach them a different way.
“We live in an age now where stress and anxiety is running high,” she said. “To pile on with a punitive hard line with young reporters, I don’t think that works. I think we need to have compassion and let them know we are all human and we all make mistakes. The best thing we can do is check thoroughly and correct the mistake if and when it gets made.”
Things are changing not just for the journalists who make mistakes, but for the readers who read them. Karlsson’s research shows that young people are “slightly more tolerant towards errors,” he said. I wonder if it’s because younger generations are growing more empathetic. Perhaps they realize there’s a real live human behind an article who is in all likelihood just trying their best.
Maybe that’s a lesson I can take into my own work — you know, be a little empathetic towards, well, me. My own black-and-white thinking around corrections isn’t just irrational — it’s presumptuous.
“When we realize that maybe we’re a little too sensitive and a little bit too self-important about the job that we do, we have to look in the mirror and say, ‘This is not rocket science,’” Finkel said. “This is a craft and a craft is something that you hone for a lifetime.”
If I still have a whole lifetime to make more mistakes, I’d better get used to dealing with them now.