AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 1998

To Err Is Human, To Correct Divine   

Many editors now feel that readily acknowledging mistakes can help strengthen credibility.

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

Related reading:
   » The Ombudsmen's Approach

On a July day in 1994, a roller coaster operator at Kentucky's largest amusement park was horrified to see that two cars filled with people were hurtling down the same stretch of track something that should never happen. He hit the emergency brake. But it was too late. The second car slammed into the first, and a seven-year-old girl's liver was lacerated.

The Louisville accident quickly became big local news. The ABC affiliate, WHAS-TV, was all over it, with on-air reporter Lisa Kiava telling viewers that the "Starchaser" had malfunctioned and that unnamed state inspectors had pronounced the indoor roller coaster unsafe.

Kentucky Kingdom President and CEO Ed Hart was outraged by the report. The park had quickly assumed responsibility for the accident, but said it was caused by an operator's error, not by a mechanical malfunction. And he wanted to know which state inspector had said the "Starchaser" was dangerous. "It's a very small department with three or four people," says Hart. "When I asked all of the people in it if they'd said it was unsafe, they said, 'No.' "

Hart insisted that the station run a correction. It did air what it called six "corrective" stories and offered Hart free airtime if the reporters could ask follow-up questions. That wasn't good enough. Hart wanted the station to admit flat out it had made a mistake. It didn't.

Three months later, his company sued the station. After a two-week trial this March, a jury awarded Kentucky Kingdom just under $4 million Kentucky's biggest libel award. The jurors unanimously concluded that WHAS-TV had defamed Kentucky Kingdom by reporting that state inspectors thought the ride was dangerous.

The A.H. Belo-owned station has taken the first step toward an appeal. Its lawyer, Schuyler Olt, is baffled by the verdict and questions why Kentucky Kingdom wasn't satisfied with the corrections it did run. "If they'd come to us and said, 'All we want you to do is apologize and we'll go away,' why wouldn't WHAS find a way to make that apology?" he asks. "Of course we would. The fact is this is a situation where we tried to respond to them."

Looking back, it appears how the demand for correction was handled played as much a role in the decision to sue as the inaccuracies. Hart, who sold Kentucky Kingdom in 1997, says there didn't have to be a libel trial. "If they'd done a correction from the outset, there would have been no reason to file the suit," he says. "Everybody makes mistakes."

He's got that right. Newspapers make numerous mistakes each year. And so do television and radio stations.

For many years, running corrections admitting publicly that you had gotten it wrong was widely avoided in the news business. There was pervasive apprehension that admitting imperfection might give the appearance that a news organization was unreliable. But that attitude is shifting. Anchored, prominent correction boxes have become staples of good newspapers. Rather than something to fear, admitting an error is now seen as a way of enhancing one's reputation for accuracy and fairness. In short, the new attitude toward corrections is that they are a way to strengthen credibility with an increasingly distrustful readership.

More and more news managers are adopting a philosophy that goes something like this: We are putting out a daily product under fierce deadline pressures. Mistakes are inevitable. No longer will we pretend we are infallible; we're not. It's crucial for our credibility to admit we make mistakes of all kinds every day. And we are willing to correct our errors.

"Despite what anyone tells you, this is a basic change in the mindset of most of us," says Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos of the San Jose Mercury News. "I keep saying that the Mercury News doesn't run enough corrections."

Editors at the Chicago Tribune rigorously track down how each error occurs, assigning each to one of six categories and scrupulously analyzing patterns, all in an effort to identify structural problems, prevent recurrences and increase credibility. At least one newspaper plays all its corrections on the front page, regardless of where the missteps occur.

But many papers concede they have no system in place to keep track of the volume and nature of their errors.

"Accuracy is what we consider one of the foundations of what we are trying to do with the newspaper," says David Wells, local news editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, which convenes "accuracy meetings" two or three times a week. "If you make mistakes, it taints everything you do. If you don't get the date of the daughter's wedding right, how can people believe what else you write? But we also need to admit our mistakes and make corrections."

You might say that Stan Tiner, editor f Alabama's oldest newspaper, the Mobile Register, is a corrections pioneer. Back in 1978, when he was editor of the now-defunct Shreveport Journal in Louisiana, Tiner instituted a radical policy. He decided to run all corrections on the front page.

Many things have changed in the past two decades, but Tiner's approach to corrections isn't one of them: The Mobile Register runs them all on page one.

Tiner's determination not to bury corrections grew out of his experiences at other papers. At one, he says, the editor was loath to admit mistakes, fearing that if it did so too often, the public would conclude the newspaper wasn't reliable.

"While I don't want to say the newspaper never made a correction," says Tiner, "the goal seemed to be more to track down the mistake and lay blame on someone else. The reporter was put under a klieg light. So the emphasis was to try to turn the focus on someone else: 'I didn't make the error, but I got bad information.' We sought out other culprits."

Today at the Mobile Register, Tiner says, corrections run out front with little staff resistance. "People say we make too many errors," Tiner says. "But I read the New York Times. They make errors too. One of the things Americans value is that there is something to be said for saying, 'I made a mistake.' I think we have a trusting readership that believes at the end of the day there's an earnest effort on our part to correct the record and do it up front. Other people give us points for it. It's like chicken soup. It can't hurt."

Not only can it not hurt, it can help. Gilbert Cranberg, the former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register, surveyed 164 libel plaintiffs for a study published in 1987. Cranberg says the evidence was overwhelming that most people who filed suits against newspapers or television stations wouldn't have done so if the news outlet had taken the complaint seriously and run a correction or retraction if one were warranted.

"When [an incorrect] story first appeared," says Cranberg, "I was told that most of the subjects were very angry and upset. Most of them did not go to a lawyer. Instead they went to the news organization to complain. They didn't want money. They wanted a correction, a retraction or an apology. They were treated so shabbily and encountered so much arrogance and lack of interest in their complaints that they went in angry and came out outraged. That's when they went to a lawyer."

Cranberg, who teaches journalism at the University of Iowa, recalls telling his wife his survey had found that it's to your benefit to deal responsively with complaints. "What kind of boobs have you been associating with?" she asked him. "Everybody knows when you go to a department store with a complaint, they have a complaint department and they deal decently with you." But in the newspaper business, says Cranberg, "we seem to be late at arriving at that realization. It's macho to be gruff."

To deal effectively with unhappy customers, Cranberg says, news organizations must have some sort of defined, centralized mechanism in place. A junior clerk taking information from an irate caller and shoving it under an overworked editor's door just won't cut it.

But a study done for the American Society of Newspaper Editors last fall by Cranberg, Kenneth Starck, ombudsman at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, and several journalism students was hardly reassuring.

Of 113 daily newspapers with circulations of 25,000 or more responding to a poll, 86 percent said that they did not have a way to track the volume and subject of complaints about news coverage.

The survey also asked whether editors were confident that when a reporter received a complaint, the criticism would be brought to an editor's attention. About half said no. "If the reporter fields the complaint, chances are it's about his or her own work," says Cranberg, "and they are going to be pretty defensive about it. And the person calling isn't going to get much satisfaction. Very quickly, as you know, these things can escalate. Somebody calls in. Reporter is upset, edgy. Pretty soon you have a shouting match."

But some news outlets have implemented systems for dealing with aggrieved readers and viewers. And a number of them involve scrapping the notion of assigning blame in a correction, eliminating such phrases as "due to an editing error" or "due to incorrect information given to the newspaper" or "due to a reporter's mistake." The paper simply and forthrightly takes the heat.

That's the approach at the San Jose Mercury News, which revamped its corrections policy in 1995. Now the paper takes the view, according to its written policy, "that frank acknowledgment of errors is something to be praised, not condemned. It is an attitude that assumes that those who inform us of errors be they members of the public or fellow staffers are trying to help, not hurt. All of us are human. The business of journalism asks humans to do something unnatural: to synthesize complex material on deadline. Occasionally, all of us will err while performing that task. But that failure pales in comparison to the failure to deliver to readers the best information we can, not only through stories, captions or charts, but also through clarifications or corrections."

The Cincinnati Enquirer, which has launched a campaign to reduce the number of mistakes in the paper, takes pains to find out precisely how each one happened. Since late 1996, department heads and senior managers have been required to attend meetings where everyone is asked whether they have any corrections to report.

"Let's say the reporter misspells a name," says David Wells, the Enquirer's local news editor. "There really isn't any excuse. We look at why the mistake was made. Whoever is responsible for the mistake has to go down and see [Editor Larry] Beaupre with the line editor who is responsible for the reporter who made the mistake. They have to say, 'Here's what happened, and here's why it's never going to happen again.' It isn't a screaming session by any measure. But it's a frank discussion. We jokingly call it going to the woodshed."

In 1997, the Enquirer acknowledged 301 errors, 9.6 percent fewer than the year before.

While the Enquirer takes reporters who make mistakes to the woodshed, some publications go even further: American Lawyer names the editor or reporter who is responsible for an error in the correction. "Historically, Steve Brill [the publication's founder and former editor] put in a policy where names were named in corrections," says editor at large John Morris. "Steve's rationale was people get bylines and credit, so they ought to take responsibility when they screw up. Initially, it was viewed as punitive and intended to embarrass. Over time, the sting wore off and people got used to it."

Some editors see closely monitoring and analyzing corrections as an important learning tool. It can help identify reporters who can't get it right. And too many corrections in one department can be a warning sign of internal problems that might have gone unnoticed if corrections were not catalogued.

One proponent of this approach is Howard Tyner, editor of the Chicago Tribune. The paper has a sophisticated system for tracking errors that is a pacesetter in the field. "The emphasis is on determining if we can learn from this error and prevent it from recurring," says the paper's "error policy," established in early 1996.

"We didn't just walk around the newsroom and stress being accurate," says Tyner. "We decided to create an industrial approach. We now have this database that was put together from all the error forms. The idea was to identify errors and figure out where they came from. Clearly part of it could be from incompetence. But what I argue with people who turn up their noses is errors can come from systemic failures. Your best copy editor may be getting too much work."

Here's how the system works: Someone calls in to complain, or someone at the newspaper notices an inaccuracy in the paper. The error is discussed by the people who handled the story and brought to the attention of the paper's public editor, George Langford. Then an explanation of how the error occurred is typed onto an electronic error form in the Tribune's computer system.

It's a simple form with five categories: describe the error and show a corrected version; how did the error occur?; how did the error come to our attention?; did deadlines affect this error?; how could this error have been avoided? The Fort Worth Star-Telegram uses a similiar form, but not many other papers do.

When one Tribune reporter was asked how an error occurred, the reporter candidly wrote, "I do not mean to make excuses and am not trying to be funny, but insomnia caused me to get a mere four hours sleep the night before and my left eye felt like a hot needle was sticking in it. I was really fading when I wrote this story."

Once the data is received, mistakes are filed in one of the following categories: newsgathering process, editing process, display process (headlines, captions), syndicate/outside suppliers, simple error (brain-lock) and unavoidable (e.g., printed concert time changes after rock star gets laryngitis).

About half of the errors fall into the newsgathering category. The next largest category is display, or as it's also known, large type errors (20 percent).

"It is not a 'gotcha' exercise," Langford says. "We tried to anticipate resistance in the beginning by making the form and how it was handled a creation of the staff itself. It's not a top-down thing. There was some resistance in the beginning, albeit minor. But we get 99 percent cooperation from the staff. And even some pride, because it's become a model in the industry."

Once you've collected all of this data, what do you do with it? You try to use it to make the paper better.

For example, the Tribune found there was an inordinate number of mistakes in obituaries. So the paper held mandatory classes on obit writing and stopped using some freelancers who wrote obits for zoned editions.

Errors in the newsgathering category inspired Tyner to schedule mandatory sessions for this summer called "Watch Your Words: A Language Skills Seminar for Tribune Writers." Some 254 reporters, senior writers and columnists have to attend two two-and-a-half-hour sessions on grammar, style and media law.

Error forms also are sometimes used in performance evaluations. "I have no problems with saying it could be punitive because it should be," says Tyner. "I suppose if the various numbers show a dramatic change or sloth or alcoholism, I'd be mad as hell. But my overwhelming sense is people want the paper to be as good as it can be."

In addition, bonuses for 35 senior managers are tied to reducing inaccuracy. "We set up targets," says Tyner. "Last year we failed to make our target, and everybody took a whack as a result. Everybody's bonus was reduced by a certain percentage." For 1998, the goal is to reduce the number of newsgathering errors by 8 percent to 356 mistakes.

Some question whether Tribune editors, eager for financial remuneration, might cover up rather than admit an error. Says the Mobile Register's Tiner, "My concern is people might do everything to wiggle and resist being forthcoming, knowing there's going to be an economic penalty."

Tyner has heard this criticism before. "People who sneer at this will say we'll cook the numbers by not telling all our mistakes," says Tyner. "Many errors are disclosed by people who don't have the same stake and aren't eligible for bonuses."

Some mistakes are easy to correct: a misspelled name, an inaccurate title, an incorrect date, the wrong political party affiliation. But there's another kind of error that is more complicated and more difficult to address. It's when the context of the story is wrong, or an important fact that could change the focus isn't included, or the tone is inappropriate. As Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor of the New York Times, said at an April panel discussion at the ASNE convention, such corrections are needed "if it makes you feel bad the next day..or it's pretty clear when we've done something that we would not do again."

Simple correction boxes don't work in such cases. In 1983, the New York Times launched "Editors' Note" to "amplify articles or rectify what the editors consider significant lapses of fairness, balance or perspective."

While the New York Times runs corrections on page two almost every day, it has printed an average of only 25 Editors' Notes annually during the last five years, according to Siegal.

Some papers go even further when a principal feels particularly aggrieved over a story. When someone thinks the essential thrust of an article was off-base, San Jose's Ceppos sometimes offers the dissatisfied party a chance to write a column under the heading "Another Point of View" in the Mercury News' Sunday Perspective section.

Ceppos himself earned much praise last year when he wrote a column taking responsibility and apologizing for the controversial "Dark Alliance" series, which suggested that the CIA may have been involved in helping to trigger Los Angeles' crack cocaine epidemic.

And sometimes the paper will run a correction twice. "If it's appropriate, we'll run a correction to an article in a weekly section immediately and then again on the day that the section next appears," Ceppos says. "Why all of the redundancy? Because it's our error, and we're responsible for it."

any journalists express the view that corrections are key to credibility. But do they really make any difference to the public? Many editors say it's impossible to prove. But they do know that what really irritates readers is when the paper refuses to admit it has made a mistake.

Former Washington Post Ombudsman Geneva Overholser believes readily acknowledging errors is vital. But after three years of listening to endless complaints, she's not sure readers would say running corrections enhances a news organization's credibility. "On the one hand, I'm absolutely sure forthrightness in corrections is fundamental to ethical behavior and to a newspaper's standing with readers," she says. "Why do I know that? I can't say. It's definitely not because readers talk very much about corrections. I hear more about, 'Why haven't you corrected' something?"

Admitting that you've screwed up could help avoid a libel suit, says media lawyer Victor A. Kovner. "If a newspaper publishes a false fact and the next day says, 'We were wrong,' it limits damages," he says. "If the same readership is told the next day that it's wrong, how substantial could the damage be? Correcting doesn't automatically eliminate a legal claim. But it does make you much more sympathetic to the judge and the jury."

But while correcting mistakes may pay off for news organizations, the public doesn't think they are as willing to do so as they should be, says Robert Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center. This is particularly true in the case of TV, he adds. This year Giles, a former editor and publisher of the Detroit News, has conducted roundtable discussions on fairness in news coverage in cities such as San Francisco, Portland, Phoenix and Nashville. "The perception is almost universal that it's impossible to get a correction on local television news," he says.

Newspapers, as tangible products, have an easier time handling corrections. Television, however, is fast-moving; a correction may be over and done with before a set is turned on.

"For television, it's more difficult in that you can never guarantee the audience that is hearing the correction is the same audience that saw the original item you are trying to correct," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "With TV you have to spend time explaining the original story and how the mistake was made. The original story most likely would be a package with video, and the correction is going to be just the anchor talking. So the audience perceives the correction differently."

Giles says that at a meeting in Phoenix, someone raised the subject of television's apparent reluctance to deal with mistakes. "One of the television journalists said, in explaining why they don't publish corrections as corrections, that breaking news is an evolving thing," says Giles. "We were told, 'In the early report we make mistakes, but we correct them as we go along, thereby negating the need for an actual correction.' But that assumes that every viewer is following the developments of a story from newscast to newscast. I still think that TV hasn't yet figured out an effective mechanism to do this."

But no matter how hard you try, Tyner notes, sometimes you just can't win.

"We still get tons of letters complaining," the Chicago editor says. "One of the more embarrassing things happened recently. We actually published a letter from someone complaining about errors. There was a misplaced apostrophe in the letter, misplaced by someone on our staff. Which shows the best laid plans can go awry."