No newspaper can hope to eliminate errors. But there is always room for improvement in correcting the errors that are made accurately, transparently, and, of course, promptly.
Andrew Alexander, ombudsman for the Washington Post, updated the newspaper’s readers Sunday, December 6, on how the Post is doing with promptness. Sadly, according to Alexander, there hasn’t been much progress in the paper’s punctuality.
“The Post‘s internal policies say that when readers point out mistakes, the response should be “prompt.” But too often, reporters and editors move at a snail’s pace to correct errors,” he writes, explaining further that “despite improvement, an analysis of Post corrections this year showed that reported errors routinely went uncorrected for weeks or even months. Many were indisputable and should have been corrected in the following day’s paper.”
As Alexander says, timeliness is ever more important in the “Internet age,” where an error left even hours longer than necessary can spread exponentially as more and more online sites pick it up. Moreover, “Dawdling on errors also weakens the bond of trust with readers who took the trouble to report them. They become justifiably cynical about The Post‘s commitment to accuracy,” he writes.
In a laudable display of transparency, the ombudsman give a few examples:
A story about health-care reform legislation put the price tag at $1.2 billion. A reader noted it should have been $1.2 trillion. But it was nearly three weeks before The Post printed a correction.
A Sports story said the leader of a professional golf tournament was ahead by seven strokes. A reader e-mailed to say it was actually three. A correction appeared 19 days later.
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A photo caption identified an officer as being in the Coast Guard. A reader pointed out that he was in the Navy. A correction ran, but more than 10 weeks later.
In mid-October, a Post story about New Orleans relief efforts said the city doesn’t have a public hospital. A reader immediately e-mailed that this was “factually incorrect,” noting that Louisiana State University was operating a temporary 100-bed hospital in the city. It was more than three weeks before the correction ran.
Chris Swenson of Arlington e-mailed The Post after a front-page story incorrectly stated that murder victim Chandra Levy had been an intern in the office of then-Rep. Gary Condit. In fact, he noted, Levy interned with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The correction ran 45 days later.
Alexander writes that “after an ombudsman’s column in March disclosed hundreds of unresolved correction requests dating to 2004, The Post did an admirable job in eliminating the backlog.”
So why are things still so bad?
Washington Post senior editor Milton Coleman says in the article that organizational changes, editor workloads and a “temporary relocation of staffers during a months-long newsroom renovation” have all contributed. In an effort toward a solution, Coleman himself will “ride herd” and start following up regularly to make sure corrections are being made, Alexander writes.
It’s hard to know how much this will help, but hopefully the Post ombudsman will update us on progress (or lack thereof) with as much candor in the future.