The media undergoes numerous stresses such as financial pressures, looming deadlines, lack of public confidence, and external censorship. It’s inevitable that organisation defects will rear their ugly heads now and then.
Print publications, radio stations, television programmes and websites are not stand-alone entities; people are the driving force behind them. And as some are fond of repeating, “Mistakes are part of being human” – this is what distinguishes us from robots.
After 2011’s biggest blunders, media organisations will scramble to win their dignity back. But how can one rectify the situation? Once a faux pas is made, there’s nothing left to do except issue an apology, retraction, explanation, or whatever other desperate thing that’s needed.
Picking up the print pieces
Print publications often pay for their mistakes. As Herman Manson notes, until the last copy of a paper is used in a fish and chip shop, print stories flounce about in the world, wreaking havoc.
Newsrooms deal with this chaos through publishing corrections, notices, ‘letters to the editor’, outright apologies, or even withdrawals. This usually includes statements of what will be done in the future to avoid such errors.
Broadcast news is not as obliging.
For all praise of the BBC, the corporation does slip up occasionally. One of the main presenters of BBC Radio 4, John Humphrys, is a regular gaffe-maker.
David Carr from the NYT says, “When the rest of the journalism world gets something wrong, they generally correct themselves. But network news acts as if an on-air admission of error might cause a meteor to land on the noggin of one of its precious talking heads.”
Carr cites Lowell Bergman, who works for PBS. “Television is an industrial process,” Bergman says. “It is built on a fiction, and they don’t want to get into the business of deconstructing how news comes together.”
Broadcast blunders seem fleeting, but in the digital age, news clips can be seen and heard over and over again online.
Jim Miller suggests a two-level method for publishing broadcast corrections. He states that they should correct the original stories on the same show/program where they occurred – and they should also post corrections online – in an obvious location.
The digital defence
On 8 March, BBC Trust launched a public consultation of proposed changes to the corporation’s complaints process. Such changes include ensuring complaints are comprehensively recorded using a central address, phone number, and site link, and setting a 30-day time limit for web content complaints.
The Trust also confirmed the following BBC plans: to create a corrections and clarifications page on the BBC website, and to appoint a ‘Chief Complaints Editor’ to coordinate complaints.
Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, said: “The BBC is the world's greatest broadcaster, but it isn’t perfect and it does sometimes get things wrong. When it does, it needs to make amends quickly and apologise if appropriate. The proposed changes are designed to make the process faster, simpler and easier to understand for audiences and give genuine complaints the priority they deserve.”
Craig Silverman advocates strongly for correction pages. He mentions that many sites don’t have any such pages, some have dead links, or some like The Economist and MSNBC have buried pages.
However, being online doesn’t mean ethical practices change. Churning out the fastest news isn’t an excuse for shoddy journalism. Online corrections should be clearly shown indicated (emphasising the altered content and displaying the original error). Unless extreme violations have been made, content should not be unpublished or removed.
The News Manual gives the following advice:
Extreme care should be taken in writing a correction and apology. Never try to get out of your own error without referring it to your editor. If there is a complaint, immediately tell your editor so that he or she can deal with the matter. If there is a possibility of the case going to court, it is wise to ask a lawyer to draft the correction or at the very least look over the one already made. Even a simple sentence on the telephone such as, “Yes, I think we made a mistake”, could destroy your defence in court. Rather say that you will “investigate their complaint”.
A better idea is to avoid such errors at all costs. Journalists: value truth and accuracy over speed and sensationalism, and you won’t have to worry about all the admin that comes with a single oversight.