It’s not life-and-death news, but sports writing values speed and currency more than just about any other news value. That’s one of the reasons that blogs work so well for sports coverage. But with that speed comes increased risk of making a fact error.
In yesterday’s coverage of the NCAA investigation into football at the University of North Carolina, Robbi Pickeral made a mistake on her News & Observer blog post. But then she provided a good example of how to correct it…and some examples of how a news organization could be more transparent about the mistakes they publish during the reporting process.
A couple of things to note:
- Errors can have real damage. Note the first comment.
- The error was up for six hours. And when it was caught, it was a reader who finally caught it. (Odds are that the N&O doesn’t edit its reporter’s blogs, but I need ask Pickeral about that.) Actually, two readers caught it and demonstrated savvy about sourcing. One said contrary information was found on ESPN, but that this wasn’t an “end-all-be-all” source. The other found contrary information the NCAA site and wanted to provide a link to prove it. I wonder how many other readers realized there was an error, but didn’t say anything. I wonder how many saw the error, but took it as fact. My belief is that in the absence of professional copyeditors, a mass of readers is the next best thing. But news organizations have to make it as easy as possible for the online audience to report errors, they must be responsive so that readers know their efforts are efficacious. And you have to have enough readers on your blog so that the odds of one of them catching an error is acceptably high. To me, six hours is too long to have an error of this magnitude up on your site.
- Pickeral fixed the problem 45 minutes after the comment was posted. And she responded to the reader acknowledging her error, explaining why she thinks it happened, and thanking the reader for catching it. That means she’s keeping up with comments, which is probably above and beyond the call of her official duties. She could have responded angrily or not responded at all. Apologizing in public is not fun. And I admire Pickeral and other journalists who do it…. as long as they don’t have to do it often.
- The correction was placed at the top of the post, making it easy for readers to see. But how did the N&O get the correct to people who saw the original error? I didn’t see a follow-up news email news alert on the item. (The N&O sent out an e-mail alert that included the fact error, and one thing that’s bad about making an error in e-mail is that just like the printed paper you can’t recall it after it’s been delivered.) I also didn’t see a “Correction” headline in the blog’s RSS feed, or a page on the site where I could go to keep track of the news organization’s errors and corrections. ESPN, for example, links from its homepage to a page of corrections.
- The error was removed from the body of the story. If news organizations work with archival or other vendors, such as Lexis-Nexis, it’s important that they make sure the corrected version of the story makes it into those historical databases as well.
The last comment I want to make on this is to address my fear that some people might think that I believe fact errors like this are acceptable collateral damage as journalism moves from product to process, and that the original errors don’t matter as much as correcting them the “right” way.
I don’t think that.
What I do believe is that in news reporting — as in all things — you can have something that’s made fast and cheap, fast and good, or cheap and good. But you can’t make something fast, cheap and good. Sometimes I’d rather sacrifice some quality for speed. And sometimes I’ll sacrifice some speed for quality. It’s all a balancing game, but I worry that the prevailing preference of both news producers and consumers is that they almost always prefer cheap the most, fast the next most and good the least.
The other thing I believe is that not all errors are created equal. In my news writing class at UNC, we take off 50 points for a major fact error, 10 points for a minor fact error, 5 points for a grammatical mistake and 2 points for an error in following the arcane but important Associated Press style rules that are unique to news writing. Correction or not, process-oriented journalism or not, Pickeral — who was actually one of my colleagues at The Daily Tar Heel when we both studied journalism as undergrads at UNC — would have lost 50 points on this one.
That said, I didn’t talk to her before writing this. And for that I would have lost 50 points, too.
You can find more about this topic in chapters 10 and 11 of my new book, Producing Online News: Digital Skills, Stronger Stories, available from CQ Press.