Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor

You were wrong. Admit it!

Newspapers often get it wrong. These days, journalism faces as much of a threat from a lack of credibility as it does from a digital transformation. And, frankly, the way South African news operations handle their errors creates a gap of trust between them and their readers.

Take the Sunday Times‘s recent story about Christine Qunta, whom it labelled the “queen of racial politics” and an Aids denialist. A week later, after Qunta had complained to the press ombudsman, the newspaper published a page-two correction, retracting the denialist comment and admitting its error in saying she was one of 12 signatories who supported President Thabo Mbeki at the outset of the HIV/Aids denial debate. In fact, none of the names mentioned by the paper ever signed such a document.

Ouch! Ham-fisted mistakes from a newspaper that so prides itself on getting it right that its reporters sign an accuracy form for each story. It also has a blurb about “accuracy” on page two each week, where it invites readers who spot mistakes to point them out “so that we can fix them”.

By printing the correction and an apology, the paper will have done its bit to avoid a defamation case (Qunta is, remember, a lawyer.) But what about the online version? When I checked the site two weeks ago, the original article appeared as it was printed on September 30. The correction was posted as an article in the news section and was not linked to the original in any way. If I were Ms Qunta, I would not have been happy.

And now, as a reader, I’m not happy. I checked the site this morning to fill in the links, but the story is gone! It’s disappeared. No record. No explanation. Just no search result. So, if you make a mistake and no one sees it, was it really a mistake?

The problem, really, is that like most South African news sites, there’s no correction section on the Sunday Times website. In fact, there’s only one site with a corrections section and that’s the Mail & Guardian Online. (I could be wrong. I’m sure you’ll let me know if I am.)

But, says editor Riaan Wolmarans, it’s not entirely comprehensive. Because of the web operation’s tight staffing, each error has to be judged on its, um, own merits. “Serious errors” get separate corrections, but simple spelling mistakes are quickly corrected without any notification to readers, a practice known as scrubbing.

A corrections section, in my opinion, allows readers to trust their news source. It opens up the conversation and makes the news process transparent and, most importantly, stops errors from spreading. The New York Times says it treats its readers as fairly and openly as possible by telling them “the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. It is our policy to correct our errors, large and small, as soon as we become aware of them.”

What’s important about news operations is that they’re not only bringing you news as it happens. They’re also archives, the public record of what has happened.

Renee Moodie, interactive head at Independent Online, sketches a real-life example of this responsibility. A few years back, a young girl was reported missing. Newspapers — and websites — carried reports of her disappearance that included her name. The girl was found, but it turned out that she had been abused. As a minor, she deserved protection. Renee says she went through IOL’s archive and removed her name from every report, noting on each story that it had been changed, and why.

“I changed the record,” she explains. “What happens if, one day, her boyfriend types her name into Google and finds out that information about her before she’s told him?”

Great justification for changing a story once its published — an action made possible by the medium. But IOL currently has no corrections section and nothing on its website to explain to readers what it does to stories that have errors in them. This is common to all of South Africa’s major news sites. And it’s not good enough.

As Canadian writer Craig Silverman, who runs the quirky and amusing site Regret the Error, points out, a standard is emerging at larger (read richer) news sites. The New York Times and the Washington Post have a static corrections page linked from their home page; they link to the corrected story from this page; and they place the correction within the text of the article itself.

And then there’s everyone’s favourite read, Salon.com, which goes so far as to post when it alters sentences to improve meaning. Slate even offers an RSS feed for corrections.

As Silverman points out, “If columnists and sections get their own RSS feed, why wouldn’t the corrections warrant one? They do.”