July 1997, Frank Sennett, then-managing editor of the alternative Chicago
noticed that his rivals at the Chicago Tribune printed an article about accused serial
killer Andrew Cunanan, erroneously stating that Cunanan was the father of
a teenage daughter.
The paper ran a correction nine days
later, explaining that the information was "provided by a federal fugitive
task force hunting Cunanan." By then, the error had been picked up and
spread around the world by the German Press Agency (DPA).
Sennett was curious, and he tried to
find out what went wrong by interviewing all the reporters on the story,
only to run into a brick wall when one of them said he was told by his
editor not to talk.
"I really started thinking about how, if
journalists ever expect regular folks to trust them and agree to be story
sources, they need to come clean about their mistakes and make every
effort to explain them and air them out in the open," Sennett said via
e-mail. "The Slipup idea grew from there."
Sennett launched Slipup.com by posting the weirdest "correction of the
day" he could find, in an attempt to focus attention on online news
organizations' corrections policies -- and lack thereof.
"It's a medium in gestation and there aren't accepted
standards for many journalism issues online," said Sennett.
"I love journalism, and saw a small area where I might be
able to help make some positive impact. The erosion of confidence in the
news media affects all of us in the industry, and I thought it was time to
do my small part to improve our product."
Sennett uses a little
humorous needling to goad online editors into avoiding the Internet
temptation of rewriting erroneous history with the flick of a mouse.
"It might seem a bit distasteful to call for online pubs to
post their corrections and then, in effect, punish them when they do by
posting the goofiest and most serious errors," he said. "But in order to
get people to keep coming back, and to get more people to think about the
issue, that's the sizzle I use to sell the ethics steak."
Slipup also links to a November study published by the American Society of Newspaper
Editors, showing that 78 percent of readers who remember seeing a
correction "felt better" about the quality of coverage they receive.
"I want to stress that I've made mistakes as both a writer
and an editor, and it's sometimes painful to see them in print," Sennett
said. "But it's a lot less painful than hiding the truth and subverting
one of the bedrock principles of journalism… That said, I'd probably be
personally bummed if I made some terrible error and some chump put the
correction online next to a dog with a wagging tail. So, my apologies to
all offended parties."
Newspaper corrections are no longer the stuff of page-two
editors and cranky librarians. The Internet, with its speed and ease of
transmission, has complicated the concept of corrections exponentially,
posing new questions that do not yet have standardized answers.
Questions such as: Should sites have a stand-alone
corrections page? If so, how long should corrections stay posted? Should
sites publish a correction if they fix an error in three minutes? How
about three months? Should corrections go directly on online articles?
Should "revised" be noted?
Chamberlain's survey confirmed her
conclusions when she first studied the subject in mid-1997:
"There are no standards for identifying, correcting and
editing the errors in newspaper Web editions."
And: Should sites maintain corrections
in their archives? Should online archives be maintained by the
print-archives librarians? Are sites legally liable for errors that are
picked up and distributed by newswires or search engines before they are
The answers to these questions vary wildly, as Riverside Press-Enterprise
Editorial Library Director Jackie Chamberlain has found. Early last year,
Chamberlain asked librarians from 21 daily newspapers how
corrections were being handled in online databases. She discovered that
"libraries rarely have anything to do with them… And Web types --
especially if they don't have a journalism or news library background --
either don't understand or don't care."
confirmed her conclusions when she first studied the subject in mid-1997: "There are no standards
for identifying, correcting and editing the errors in newspaper Web
Arkansas Online corrects "as soon as possible
online in three different areas," Oakley said via e-mail.
Corrections are made in the section where the mistake
appeared, in red type next to the fixed item in the article itself and in
the top and bottom of the modified file. There is no stand-alone
corrections section. The articles and PDF format archive files are
available online for seven days; if an error is discovered three months
later, a correction is still run in the section, and a line is entered
into a log of corrections stored next to the PDFs.
three-prong corrections method may be especially effective as media
cyberlaw is still evolving.
"So far, electronic items are
basically held to the same liability standards as print articles -- a good
faith effort to correct as soon as the error is recognized is considered
sufficient to protect from liability," Oakley said.
has also been some legal consideration of whether leaving errors in
correctable places may not be considered negligent."
For an example of a bad corrections
policy, Sennett points at USA Today's site. "It's as if
they've never made a mistake," he said.
Slipup's Sennett praises the corrections
policies of the Washington Post ("great job"), CBS Marketwatch ("awesome policy") and the Chicago
Tribune ("ironically enough").
MarketWatch corrects "any
material errors... as quickly as we can after we spot them" on a
stand-alone corrections page that is heavily linked throughout the site,
said MarketWatch Managing Editor Tom Murphy. The blunders stay up for two
weeks, and mistakes discovered long after the fact elicit a new correction
and a fix to the archives.
The Chicago Tribune runs a daily
corrections list, and if the article is available on its Web site, it is
corrected with a note at the top and near the correction explaining the
new change, said Tribune Interactive Media Director Owen Youngman.
Further, "every error leads to a form being filled out and
reviewed by everyone who touched the error in question," Youngman said.
"So overall we have a culture of seeking out errors, and in fact we have a
goal each year of increasing the percentage of published errors that we
catch ourselves, rather than waiting for the public to call us on it."
For an example of a bad corrections policy, Sennett points
at USA Today's site.
"It's as if they've never made a mistake," he said.
general lack of online corrections, Sennett said, is likely due to "a lack
of editorial resources and the fact that it's a developing medium."
Another reason, he said, why the time to change is now.
"Look, if Matt Drudge can regularly come clean about his
errors, can the rest of the media do any less?"