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How to correct website and social media errors effectively

One elemental concept of transparency, which is a conceptual shift for some organizations, is that corrections are a good thing.

Errors are of course unfortunate and bad. We must make as much an effort as possible to prevent errors before they make their way into the world. The ease with which mistaken claims and false facts can pick up speed and spread requires that we be diligent in verifying facts before publication. News organizations should track the error rates of individual reporters, and offer training and, when necessary, discipline to help ensure overall quality.

However, some amount of errors will inevitably occur, especially in a fast paced digital environment. That’s why we correct our errors — and do so publicly and transparently.

Rather than destroying trust, corrections are a powerful tool to reinforce how accountable and transparent we are.

“If you’re willing to admit you’re wrong, people will trust you more,” said Mathew Ingram of Gigaom. “If I said to someone ‘You know, I’m never wrong’ they would think I was a psychopath or a liar, so they would trust me less. That’s versus if I said ‘I screw up all the time.’ They trust you more because you’re more human.”

That’s the paradox of trust: admitting our mistakes and failings make us more deserving of trust.

After a decade spent researching, writing about, and offering training and guidance to newsrooms about corrections, I’ve arrived at some corrections fundamentals that don’t change in the digital world:

  • Feel and write like a human. A correction is a very human thing, in that it admits a mistake. But too many corrections read as if written by a robot, rather than a human. If someone has been wronged, acknowledge it. And if the error is admittedly funny and the context allows for it, don’t be afraid to let the humor shine through.
  • Be clear about what was incorrect, and the correct information. Don’t make things worse by writing a foggy correction. There is a natural tendency to downplay the mistake, but this will only make things worse by leaving the reader confused or suspicious. Clarity is paramount when writing a correction.
  • Due prominence. This is a concept that exists in the British press regulation system. It holds that a correction must be given the same prominence as the original article. It’s admittedly an artifact of the print era, when the correction would appear on a separate day from the original. But it applies to the digital world because it’s still important to think about how you can give the correction a similar level of prominence and promotion as the original story.
  • Help the truth spread. A central goal of a correction is to communicate the correct information. This has always been the case. In a networked world, we must now also think about how we help the correction spread just as the incorrect information may have.

I. Create the right culture

In some quarters, a culture of shame traditionally surrounds corrections. Reporters are so stricken at the idea of making mistakes, and perhaps being punished for admitting them, that the tendency may be to avoid a public correction. They may also fear being disciplined for admitting their errors, which causes them to try to hide their mistakes.

This is the worst possible cultural scenario: it leads to an atmosphere of denial, of errors not being corrected, of audiences being frustrated — and it leaves journalists less likely to learn from mistakes, or from readers. The result, ironically, is more errors.

The New York Times’ Guidelines on Integrity send a clear message that journalists need to report their errors.

“The paper regrets every error, but it applauds the integrity of a writer who volunteers a correction of his or her own published story,” it reads.

Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle’s corrections policy states that, “It will be considered unprofessional conduct and a breach of duty if employees are notified of possible errors but fail to respond. Correcting errors and clarifying ambiguous information is a virtue and an admirable practice.”

Based on extensive research of newsrooms that do corrections well, these are the four ingredients that make a positive corrections culture:

  1. Model behavior from the top. Newsroom leaders must emphasize that the worst (unintentional) errors are ones that go uncorrected. Make it clear that errors are teachable moments, and the focus is on learning why mistakes occur and finding ways to stop them from happening again. Reporters, producers and others must also do their part by committing themselves to working to prevent mistakes.
  2. Encourage people to report their mistakes, and to respond to requests. This must be reinforced consistently. One way to communicate its importance is to instill a policy that anyone caught hiding errors will be disciplined.
  3. Make it easy to do corrections. Create a workflow (as previously outlined) that makes it easy to have corrections quickly approved and added to content.
  4. Offer praise and examples. Celebrate people who act quickly to add corrections, and who interact with the community to respond to requests for correction. Show examples of well-executed corrections. Have regular meetings for teams or departments to discuss their mistakes in an open and constructive way, and talk about ways to prevent them from happening again.

II. Create a corrections policy

A corrections policy is the basic roadmap of why and how to do corrections. It need not be a long, wordy document. The more clear, concise and digestible, the better.

News organizations are also increasingly publishing this policy publicly. The Reuters Handbook of Journalism [PDF] is publicly available, and includes a detailed section about correcting and preventing errors

“Reuters is transparent about errors. We rectify them promptly and clearly, whether in a story, a caption, a graphic or a script,” it reads. “We do not disguise or bury corrections in subsequent leads or stories.”

Other detailed corrections policies worth looking at are from The Washington Post and BuzzFeed.

Public editors and others responsible for creating and maintaining a corrections policy cite five key elements to include:

  • Communicate the value of corrections. Why are corrections important to your organization? Why is it essential that journalists admit their errors and speak up when they think something is incorrect? When do you need to add a correction? Articulate your organization’s view of corrections.
  • Set your style; offer examples. The Washington Post, for example includes this basic template in its policy: “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 …'”
  • Designate an internal lead. Who will be your corrections guru? This person is the keeper and updater of the policy, and should make the final call whenever there is a debate about whether to deliver a correction. In the end someone must be responsible for corrections, otherwise a policy will fall out of date, and no one will be there to offer reminders and positive reinforcement.
  • Design a workflow. How will you gather and process requests from the public and from sources? Who writes the correction, and who approves it? These and other elements of the correction workflow are essential to establish; otherwise there can be a backlog and confusion.
  • Determine if any tools are needed. As noted previously, more and more news organizations are offering forms and other ways for members of the public to submit requests for corrections. Think about what you may need to create to help the flow of corrections match your policy’s goals.

III. Write good corrections

Clarity is paramount in writing corrections. People must understand the initial error, and the correct information.

Attempts to minimize or obfuscate the mistake can render a correction confusing, or meaningless. It also compounds the damage. Along with the goal of being clear, a well-executed correction includes these elements:

  • It’s labeled a correction. The term correction has been used in the press for a long time. The public understands what it means. So if you are correcting a factual error, label the correction a correction. It’s not an “Update” or “Note,” etc.
  • It’s of the same quality as other content. Corrections must be written and edited with the same care as other content. This protects against having to issue the dreaded correction-to-a-correction.
  • The original error has been fixed. Along with adding the correction to the offending piece of content, it’s also important to fix the factual error in the content, if possible. This eliminates the cognitive dissonance of someone reading the incorrect information and then also seeing a correction that contradicts what they just consumed.
  • The mistake, and the correct information. As noted above, a good correction makes it clear what was incorrect, and what is the true information.

A few other elements to consider including:

  • An expression of regret. Adding a “we regret the error” or “apologies” to specific corrections where someone may have been offended or wronged can be a sincere way to communicate a sense of empathy and accountability.
  • When appropriate, reflect the tone of the story. A genuinely amusing error made in a lighthearted piece of content could open the door to a playful correction. For example, The Economist mistakenly reported that staffers at Bloomberg Businessweek are forbidden to enjoy casual drinks in the office. That resulted in this correction:
    “Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that journalists at Bloomberg Businessweek could be disciplined for sipping a spritzer at work. This is not true. Sorry. We must have been drunk on the job.”But a word of caution: being funny can be hard, and risky. Ensure you only strike a lighthearted tone when it’s appropriate. Never compound the damage with a tone-deaf correction.
  • Indicate when the fix was made. News organizations will often include the date or even a time stamp with a correction, to show when the content was updated.
  • Credit the person who spotted the error. This is a great way to turn a correction into an opportunity for community engagement. As previously noted, corrections today sometimes include a link to a comment that pointed out the error or a thank you to a specific error spotter on Twitter or elsewhere. This rewards them for their participation, and communicates that your organization welcomes reports of errors.

IV. How to do social media corrections

Different social platforms have different best practices for corrections. Here’s a look at the right way to issue corrections on three major platforms.

Twitter corrections

Whether it was a tweet with an error in it, or a piece of content you tweeted that included an error, it’s important to flow corrections to Twitter.

As shown below, the ideal way to issue a Twitter correction is to send it as a reply to your original, mistaken tweet. In this example, the smaller tweet at the top is the original, which included an incorrect photo. (It showed Javier Bardem instead of Vladimir Putin.)

After realizing the mistake, Slate sent a second tweet as a reply to the first that included the correction:

slate-correction

Sending it as a reply does two key things:

  • It permanently links the correction tweet to the original one, thereby showing why the correction was issued. This also ensures that anyone looking at the mistaken tweet later will see the correction below it.
  • It ensures that all of Slate’s followers can still see the correction.

Note also that the correction text is very clear, and that it’s labeled (in all caps) as a correction. So the fundamentals of writing corrections still apply.

“In the past year, I’d say, I’ve started correcting mistakes within tweets as replies,” said Slate social media editor Jeremy Stahl in a 2014 interview. “Prior to that, I was running separate correction tweets after making errors, but then I realized that the original incorrect tweets were still out there and if people didn’t see both tweets they’d miss the correction. This seems to be an effective way of not only issuing a correction, but indicating the error on the mistaken copy.”

Retweets are another important aspect of doing Twitter corrections. If your incorrect tweet — or tweet pointing people to a piece of content with an error in it — was retweeted, then it’s good practice to make sure those users see the correction, and to encourage them to retweet it to their followers.

In cases where there may be too many retweeters to reach each of them, pick out the people who are most influential, in terms of the number of followers and overall profile. Then reach out. This may sound labor intensive, but it’s actually a very fast process (you can send the same reply to people), and you’ll receive a lot of positive responses.

As a general rule, you want to avoid having to delete a tweet. In cases where there may be legal issues, or when the erroneous information continues to be retweeted at a significantly faster pace than the correction, deleting may be necessary. But it’s to be avoided whenever possible — on any social platform.

“It’s rare for us to delete a post, and we would not delete just to prevent embarrassment,” said Mayer of the Missourian.

Another aspect for individual journalists to keep in mind is that the more personal and human you can be in offering a correction, the more sincere and effective it will be. Your social media profile is an extension of you. Think about offering a personal tweet to point people to a correction.

An example is this very genuine duo of correction tweets sent by Brian Stelter when he worked for the New York Times:

stelter-correction

Stelter explained in an interview with Poynter that he wanted to be clear about the nature of his mistake.

“I had received a few tweets and emails from Bill O’Reilly’s viewers accusing me of lying, so I replied and explained that it was a mistake, not an intentional lie,” Stelter said at the time. “Then I decided to tweet it out widely.”

Facebook corrections

Facebook offers a feature that’s very useful for doing corrections: you can edit a post after it’s been published. So, as with a blog post or other type of online content, you can go in after the fact, fix your error and add a correction.

On top of that, however, it’s also best practice to add a comment on the post itself to notify people that you have edited and corrected the content. This element of disclosure is useful because people who previously commented on the post may be notified of your new comment, thereby drawing their attention to the correction.

Facebook also offers the ability to “hide” a post from your wall. This is a way to take an erroneous post off of the main page of your wall, without having to delete it.

It’s a useful feature when, for example, your original post featured an incorrect image that dominates the post itself. After you add the correction, you may want to hide the post, given the fact that the image itself was the main piece of content and it will be far more prominent than the correction.

Instagram corrections

As in the below example from NowThis News, you can add a correction to an Instagram post by adding it in a comment.

In this instance, the news organization responded to a person’s comment by adding a new comment, and noting that it was a correction. (It would have been better to call it a “Correction” rather than the abbreviated “Correx,” just for the sake of clarity.) NowThis also chose to give a “hat tip” the user who pointed out the mistake.

instagram-correction

Obstacles to Expect and Overcome: Pushing corrections to all channels. Journalists feel awful when they make a mistake, and this leads to a natural tendency to want to stop thinking about the error as soon as possible. The idea of proactively reaching out to people on Twitter, or elsewhere, to alert them to a mistake is uncomfortable. However, by getting just one colleague to do this, you’ll be able to show two things: 1. It doesn’t take much time at all to reply to a few people. 2. The people you contact will be receptive and even grateful. This positive reinforcement can go a long way to getting journalists to embrace the discomfort of actively promoting corrections for their own mistakes.

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