Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Corrections: The error of our ways, & vice-versa

A letter to Romanesko from David Cay Johnston, written in response to Ted Vaden's ombudsman's column in the N&O, bears amplification, because Johnston flat-out gets it (although I do disagree with one of his formulaic solutions). He writes (bolded emphasis is mine):
The analysis of errors and corrections in Ted Vaden's Sunday column in the Raleigh News & Observer is troubling on many levels -- and raises issues that ought to prompt deeper thinking by his fellow ombudsmen, as well as the rest of us.
The number of corrections run annually is a lousy measure of actual errors, arguably worse than crime statistics are of actual crime. Indeed, the correction process itself reeks of bias that favors softball journalism.

Mr. Vaden's numbers measure only errors that drew complaints sufficient to prompt a correction. How many errors did not draw complaints? (This is why careful reporters qualify their articles on crime statistics by referring to "reported crimes" and why ombudsmen ought to take note of requests for corrections.)

The corrections data counts all errors as equal, just as the FBI crime index gives the same weight to a murder and a tricycle theft -- one. But of course all errors are not equal. Analysis is required to understand the nature of the problem. What share of corrections were spelling errors? Math errors? Editing errors? Typos? Erroneous official reports that were accurately cited? How many were about messed up facts, or stereotypes, that created a false impression? What is the ratio of complaints made to corrections run?

Perhaps most important, what portion of complaints are determined to be malicious?

We rarely tell readers, listeners and viewers about complaints from those who those who twist, distort and lie to shut down hard-hitting reporting.

At many news organizations, just complaining can produce benefits, especially if it results in clear facts being muddied with extraneous details. Ombudsmen could do a lot of good by describing such dishonest complaints so readers get a fully balanced view of journalism.

And what of substance? Murders are much more likely than petty thefts to turn up in crime statistics. But in journalism it is the easy to verify errors, such as misspelled names, that tend to result in corrections, while unchallenged journalistic felonies lie in the published record.

The ease or difficulty of making a complaint is another factor. Just as the police can make it appear crime is down by creating obstacles (e.g., requiring one to come to a police station rather than sending a car to the scene), editors can restrict the volume of complaints by how they require them to be handled.

One way to narrow the gap between actual and corrected errors would be to require that all complaints, regardless of merit, be referred in writing to a designated editor high in the organization. A rigid enforcement mechanism -- firing on the second omission, perhaps -- would encourage compliance.

The correction process is also biased against tough reporting.

Hardly anyone complains about errors that make them look good. All sorts of errors can be found in stories with heroic themes (rescues, crimes solved, etc.) and in stories about politicians, actors and athletes without any complaints.

Lack of corrections should never be taken as an indication that a journalist does quality work. One can write pap and never get a complaint even though the work is riddled with errors of fact, omission and distortion.

Do errors that distort reality by polishing an image differ from those that tarnish? A case can be made that fawning errors do more harm, especially when they advance the careers of politicians, cops, prosecutors, judges, surgeons, scientists and executives who use their power for venal purposes or prove incompetent.

The volume of corrections may speak more of readers than to the publication’s relative accuracy. I read far more corrections in The New York Times than in the New York Post, but then do Post readers have the same expectations of fidelity to fact as Times readers?

Perhaps we should think about corrections as a measure of integrity -- and running many may signify commitment to fact, openness to complaints and high reader expectations.

A quarter century ago I suggested to David Shaw that he undertake a project to verify every fact in one day's Los Angeles Times. The conversation was prompted by my volunteering a correction (which, as I recall, did not run) that we had the age of a woman in a brief item wrong because the official police report was in error, which I learned while doing a follow-up.

David said he could imagine a year traveling the globe and he was certain that he could find some error in almost every article in that day’s paper. We talked about people who get facts about themselves wrong and reporters suspected of piping quotes and of important stories ignored because they were beyond the skill, or interest, of the beat reporter. David observed that most errors would turn out to be second hand, as with the age of the woman, and many others trivial, so that at the end of the day it would be a wasted exercise. I agreed.

One last thought in the hopes it will prompt some deeper thinking about the flaws and biases in correction policies:

There are reporters who spot mistakes in their own work that no one complained about, and submit corrections, a point no reader would imagine based on Mr. Vaden's unqualified assertions at the top of his column. What does it say about our craft that this is the just the kind of stereotypical false impression that is likely to stand uncorrected?
In parting, let me add: The ethical failings of newspapers often have nothing to do with the accuracy of the limited set of facts on which they report, but rather on the decisions that determine which facts will be revealed to the public. Which is worse? Calling a 36-year-old woman a 37-year-old in the story of her murder or leaving out information that would indicate the killing was the result of a drug dispute?

If the murder occurs in the ghetto, the drug reference is likely used without much thought. But what if the murder occurs in suburbia, and the victim is a member of a well-connected family? Publish the police's suspicions and you hurt the family's reputations and provoke a bunch of angry phone calls. Omit those suspicions and you give the community the impression that there is a random killer at large, targeting women for unknown reasons. Does the suppression of credible information count as an error when it gives the public a significant misconception?

Counting corrections doesn't tell you as much about quality as the press fundamentalists would have you believe. Kudus to Johnston.