Imagine you’re sitting at the back of a classroom. The lecture is on a fascinating topic — the American Civil War, say. The professor has started a riveting back-and-forth with students in the front about the Union’s initial motivations for fighting. The professor says, “And then Harriet Jacobs wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which galvanized many northerners in the cause of abolishing slavery. What role do you think Jacobs’ book played?”
You cock your head. Harriet Jacobs? It was Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” You raise your hand to ask for a clarification, but the back-and-forth between the professor and students rolls on; the students debate Jacobs’ impact, reinforcing the error. The professor is not calling on you, let alone seeing you — and Jacobs’ name is now forever linked in a dozen students’ minds with the wrong book.
This is a light illustration of what can happen when errors of fact are made and reinforced, but it’s light only because it’s fleeting and somewhat contained. On a news website, however, an uncorrected error can be persistent, countlessly recited, and linked to by a thousand pages. It’s a big problem. Error tracking and correction, as Mark Follman and Scott Rosenberg at MediaBugs argue in their new survey and report this week, is a central pillar of the public’s trust in news organizations. But thus far online, news organizations are failing to buttress that pillar:
The results of MediaBugs’ first survey of Bay Area media-correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined — including many of the region’s leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets — provide no corrections link on their websites’ home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.
Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site’s search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.
The Price of Uncorrected Errors
MediaBugs has already made many corrections happen. But when you’re an engaged citizen, seeing an error online and not being able to suggest a correction is like sitting at the back of a classroom, helpless, as your fellow students learn and repeat the wrong thing. You feel somehow lesser, that you’re both ignored and ignorant.
That feeling not only breeds mistrust but resentment — a feeling that the professor or editor must think they know everything, that they don’t need you. Yet all they have to do is admit they are human, that corrections are needed and should be easily submitted, tracked, and publicized. That people sometimes make mistakes.
Correction July 14: This post originally said that “MediaBugs has already made hundreds of corrections happen,” but the actual total of corrections is closer to a couple of dozen.