At Washington Post and Register Citizen, ‘report-an-error’ forms make it easier to identify, respond to mistakes

Mallary Jean Tenore by Mallary Jean Tenore Published Apr. 4, 2011 10:37 am Updated Apr. 4, 2011 11:01 am

When news organizations make mistakes, they can usually count on their audiences to tell them when they’re wrong. But most news sites don’t make it easy for readers to submit correction requests. Readers end up having to point out errors in the comments sections of stories, or they send emails to the wrong people and never hear back.

Hoping to make the process easier and more efficient, The Washington Post recently launched a report-an-error form.

The Washington Post recently added a form to report an error.

The form, which is displayed on every article page, asks readers to identify the type of error they’ve spotted and the section it appeared in. It also asks readers, “How can we fix it?” and “What do we need to know to improve future stories on this topic?”

“I had been wanting to make it easier for our online audience to flag errors or suggest ways for us to improve stories,” said Managing Editor Raju Narisetti. Previously, there was not a consistent way to do this.

The feature — which Post staffers Greg Linch and Hal Straus created — launched on Feb. 7 but wasn’t displayed on every story until after The Washington Post’s site redesign launched in mid-March.

As of last week, about 540 people had used the feature to submit corrections, suggestions and tips. Those that seem like errors are first sent to section editors, Narisetti said. From there, they enter the Post’s internal database for tracking correction requests. If there’s a backlog, the system generates a message that’s sent to section editors, who respond and make corrections when necessary.

Limitations of traditional corrections

Of the 540 corrections requests submitted using the report-an-error form, 32 pointed out factual errors and 180 pointed out bad links and grammatical errors. Of that 180, about one-third were issues with photo captions. The remaining requests came from readers who were expressing opinions about stories.

“We receive a lot of requests for corrections that are essentially not corrections, but readers’ opinions,” Narisetti said by phone. “Someone will write in saying, ‘You got it all wrong.’ ”

Often, readers are just expressing their opinions on matters that don’t require corrections. But sometimes, they raise valid points, alerting journalists to “big picture errors.” As Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong,” has pointed out, the accelerated pace of today’s journalism makes it easier to make these types of errors by preventing us from seeing the deeper meaning of stories — or causing us to miss the point of them entirely. And currently, there isn’t an effective way to acknowledge such errors.

In his month on the job, Ombudsman Patrick Pexton said he hasn’t received requests to correct any big picture errors, but he has gotten notified about several factual ones. He’s written about some of them, including one in which a graphic accompanying a story about pension liabilities listed dollar figures in millions instead of billions. The mistake was fixed, Pexton said by phone, but the correction still didn’t feel sufficient.

“We should write corrections without hesitation or shame, but they never fully compensate for the error,” said Pexton, who noted that he receives about five to 10 correction requests from readers per week.

Engaging with users, responding quickly

Throughout the coming weeks, Pexton plans to keep track of how well the report-an-error feature is working and how quickly editors are responding. Two years ago, former ombudsman Andy Alexander criticized the Post for not addressing a backlog of hundreds of reader correction requests, and for moving at a “snail’s pace” when correcting errors. He later praised the paper for responding to the issue.

“My experience so far is that they respond pretty quickly,” said Pexton, who often forwards the requests he gets. “I think they’re a little more responsive when it comes directly from the ombudsman because they’re afraid I’m going to write about it.”

Narisetti said his hope is that by making it easier for readers to submit correction requests, the Post will become more aware of the errors it makes and build trust. The report-an-error feature also fits with the goals of the redesign: to bring more people to the Post’s content and let them engage with it more.

“We have been very successful in growing our audience, but we haven’t been as successful in keeping them engaged,” said Narisetti of the Post’s website. “This increases engagement because we’re being responsive to readers, and there’s significant value in that.”

The problem with quantifying corrections

The number of corrections the Post runs has remained steady throughout the past five years, Narisetti said. “In any given year,” he noted “we end up running between 600 and 800 corrections, which is pretty low given the volume of content we put out.”

In theory, report-an-error features such as the Post’s would help news organizations become more aware of the errors they make and, in turn, make them less likely to repeat the same errors in the future. This, in turn, could reduce the number of corrections they run each year.

The number of corrections isn’t as important, though, as the total number of errors that remain uncorrected.

“Using ‘total number of errors corrected’ as a metric for how well a newsroom is doing is problematic. A low number could mean ‘we get stuff right’ or it could mean ‘we really resist correcting our mistakes,’ ” Scott Rosenberg, creator of MediaBugs, said via email. “The best metric would be the ratio of total number of corrections to the total number of mistakes — if you correct 90 percent of your mistakes that’s better than correcting 25 percent.”

Research has shown that fewer than 2 percent of factual errors identified by news sources are corrected. Ideally, report-an-error features would help increase this percentage, both because they give readers an easier way to request corrections and because they make it harder for news organizations to ignore them.

Getting more thoughtful correction requests, building trust

Matt DeRienzo, publisher of The Register Citizen, said the paper is much more aware of the corrections it needs to make since launching a fact-check form last May.

After seeing the Post’s report-an-error form, The Register Citizen changed its form to mirror the Post’s. Since then, he said, people’s comments have been more thoughtful and of a higher quality. About 80 percent of the time, the comments point out legitimate corrections.

Similar to the Post’s form, The Register Citizen’s form asks readers, “What should we have written?” and “Who else would you suggest we interview to improve this story?” In a phone interview, DeRienzo said he hopes this latter question will help the paper develop new sources. The form also asks for, but doesn’t require, readers’ names and contact information. When given permission, the paper credits readers in its corrections.

The Register Citizen runs three to four corrections a week, very few of them to address big picture errors.

“That’s where we need to change. If you think about all the corrections of poor context or missing context, there’s a ton of that,” said DeRienzo, who hopes the fact-check form will make the paper more aware of big picture errors it might make. “I almost want to phrase the form as the ‘What did I miss? form.’ ”

DeRienzo indicated that almost all of the 17 other Journal Register Company’s dailies now have fact-check boxes on their sites. Other news organizations, such as The Huffington Post and The Toronto Star, also have similar correction forms.

Such forms give news organizations an opportunity to connect with their readers, and perhaps more importantly, show them that they care.

“At the end of the day, I want readers to engage more with us and, in this case, tell us if we’re messing up,” Narisetti said. “What we are trying to say is that like many large newsrooms, we are human. We make mistakes, we correct them quickly, and we apologize and move on.”


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