How to Handle a Mistake

 

Maya Kapoor, an associate editor at High Country News, was in a bit of a rush when she published a June 2020 story about the spike in Californians relying on food bank services due to COVID-19. “California’s food insecurity level more than doubled between March and April, from approximately 11 percent of the state’s population, to approximately a quarter, or about 40 million people,” she wrote.

But soon after the story was published, a colleague told Kapoor that the figure was wrong. The correct number for April was 10 million. (40 million is about 100 percent of the state’s population.) Her math had gotten tangled when she did a quick estimate of California’s population in relation to that of the entire U.S.

High Country News immediately fixed the error and appended a correction noting the change to the bottom of the story. Though she regretted the mistake, Kapoor was proud of how she and the publication handled it. “I don’t think the point of being a journalist is to be perfect all the time,” she says. “I think it’s to try to be as accurate and reliable as possible and to be aware of your own mistakes and limitations and be honest about them.”

Gretchen King, who is the managing digital editor at High Country News and serves as the publication’s go-to for correcting mistakes, says it’s crucial to correct errors quickly (without introducing further mistakes) and to be transparent with readers and sources about the changes. While corrections may make writers cringe, the purpose is to serve the audience, she says—not to shame journalists for their mistakes.

“It goes back to reader trust,” King says. “We want to be accurate and fair to all of our sources, and to our reader, and to the story.”

At some point in their career, most journalists, even experienced ones like Kapoor, will make a mistake, from minor ones such as misspellings to more significant ones like misunderstanding the conclusions of a study. It’s crucial to understand how mistakes happen, so journalists can do their best to avoid them—and understand how to handle them when they do occur.

 

Anatomy of a Mistake

Working too quickly is a common source of mistakes, as it was for Kapoor. Deadline pressure is as old as journalism, but the imperative to turn stories around swiftly can be even worse in digital newsrooms, where reporters are often expected to file several stories a day, says Yasmin Tayag, a senior editor at the technology and science publication OneZero. Tayag has written or edited for digital outlets for a decade, and at too many places she’s worked, “it just seems like kind of an unreasonable pace to be working at,” she says, adding that editors at some publications are so overburdened that they can’t pay attention to every detail. “That’s the nature of the industry, making it feel like you have to make the content and put it out there without double-, triple-, quadruple-checking everything.”

 

Speed isn’t the only factor that can lead to mistakes. Sometimes, our own minds can trip us up, causing unforced errors.

 

That pressure to move fast can also push reporters into making hasty decisions about what to cover in the first place. This was the case with a 2019 article that journalist Matt Tinoco wrote for LAist, in which he incorrectly reported, based on a faulty study, that Los Angeles had more vacant houses than homeless people. The study, which relied on inaccurate vacancy numbers for new buildings, was retracted a few days after the LAist story was published, and LAist corrected the story and revised the headline. “I should have vetted the study harder,” says Tinoco. In fact, he had doubts about it from the beginning. But “I was feeling pressured by my newsroom,” he says. “They really wanted the story and I didn’t really feel empowered to say, ‘Actually, no, we should kill this.’”

Speed isn’t the only factor that can lead to mistakes. Sometimes, our own minds can trip us up, causing unforced errors. Renita Coleman, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, remembers that early in her career, she interviewed a man named Hollis Holbrook for a story, but referred to him as “Hal Holbrook,” the famous actor. She chalked the slip-up to “weird things that happen in your brain.” The name “Hal Holbrook” felt right, and no one double-checked. Decades later, Coleman says the incident provided a stark reminder of how crucial it is to not just trust your gut—the thing that seems obviously right can be the place where you make an error without thinking about it.

Some errors can originate with sources themselves. In a May 2020 interview in Undark, Michael Schulson quoted Stanford University scientist John Ioannidis as saying that an infectious disease’s fatality rate is “affected both by how you count the nominator and how you count the denominator.” Tom Zeller, editor-in-chief of Undark, says he received a message from a reader noting there is no such thing as a “nominator”; the correct term is “numerator.” “This seemed obvious to us in hindsight, but it was also a verbatim quote from a highly regarded scientist,” says Zeller, who corrected Ioannidis’s slip of the tongue by replacing “nominator” with “numerator” in brackets in the text and adding an update at the bottom of the story noting that Ioannidis had misspoken.

 

The Mechanics of Making a Correction

Historically, issuing a print correction was a straightforward, albeit slow, process. It would appear in a subsequent issue of the publication, in space reserved for corrections. Today, most publications with a print component publish corrections online in advance of doing so in their next physical issue. But as High Country News’s King says, that’s an imperfect system, since some readers may not see a correction until they receive their next print issue—if they bother reading the corrections page at all. And if a print issue with an error is “floating around,” she says, “the error still lives, which is unfortunate.” But at least it can be fixed online. In the print-only days, news articles were often placed in research databases like Lexis Nexis without the corrections that were later appended to them, says Dan Gillmor, who researches journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University. But with digital media, corrections can be made quickly, and many outlets seem to have become more transparent. “I think corrections are a little less grudging than they used to be,” says Gillmor. “News organizations seem a little more willing to talk about how they do things [and] why they do things.”

Publications differ on the format, placement, and language they use in issuing corrections. Often, the process starts with deciding whether a change is a correction at all—and that determination can vary by outlet. At Science News, editors enter an editor’s note into the CMS at the same time that they correct a story itself, says Macon Morehouse, the magazine’s news director. Editor’s notes appear at the end of a story and specify exactly what was corrected and when.

Some outlets use the terms correction and update interchangeably, while others, like Slate, use correction to label mistakes and update to label stories that include new information. “I wouldn’t say there’s a universal standard, although I think that idea [that] if something is factually incorrect, you want to call it a correction is pretty accepted,” says Abby McIntyre, the assistant managing editor of Slate and resident monitor of corrections.

Issuing corrections also involves making decisions about language, like whether to include an apology (such as the classic “regret the error” line) in a correction. Some outlets, such as The Verge, do so if the mistake was the fault of someone at the publication. Other outlets, including Science News and Slate, assume it goes without saying that the publication regrets the error, and that it’s not necessary to explicitly apologize.

At BuzzFeed News, Slate, and The New York Times, the original mistake is repeated in the correction, while some other outlets’ corrections are more vague, noting the general nature of the correction but not repeating the original error. Many journalism publications and organizations, like the Columbia Journalism Review and the Online News Association, have debated whether corrections should repeat the original error. Some studies have explored the backfire effect, which can occur when people reading a correction end up believing the misconception being corrected. Even so, according to Gillmor, “it seems reasonable to describe the original error in some way.” He believes the best way to correct a mistake involves a “truth sandwich,” where the publication states the correct information, then states what was incorrect, and then finishes with a reference to the correct information.

Another debate in the world of journalism corrections surrounds what other information a correction should contain. Some publications will clarify that the mistake originated with an editor or the copydesk, so readers know it was not the reporter’s fault. Slate chooses to publish a weekly roundup of its mistakes with names of Slate writers who made mistakes. McIntyre says the practice has been “somewhat controversial” with Slate writers, but that it does help with transparency.

Publications also have to consider how the placement of a correction—at the top or bottom of a story—can affect public perception. Some say placing a correction at the bottom is akin to hiding it, or ensuring readers gloss over it. Others disagree. “My personal preference is that unless it’s so egregious that we really feel the need to issue a preamble, I’d rather not interrupt the story itself with a correction at the top of the piece,” says Zeller. “That almost feels punitive, to say right under this person’s byline that they got this wrong.”

Instead, Undark normally places corrections at the end of stories; in those cases, readers are not alerted that a story contains a correction until they reach the end. Slate also places corrections at the end of stories, but inserts an asterisk next to the sentence the error was in, signaling to the reader that something has been changed in that place. Gillmor, for his part, thinks mistakes should be prominently corrected in-line, or at the very least should have a line saying “this has been corrected” at the top of the article with the details of the correction at the bottom.

When one or more errors undermines an article altogether, it’s best to make the correction or update more prominent, which can include placing it at the top of the article. This was the case, for example, with a story that BuzzFeed News (like many other outlets) published in May 2020 about a Lancet study on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The study was later retracted, so Azeen Ghorayshi, the science editor at BuzzFeed News, decided to publish a follow-up article as well as update the headline and change significant portions of the body of the original story. The corrected story also included an update note at the top with a link that took readers to the new story.

 

The Writer’s Role in Corrections

Whether it’s a big error or a small one, the first thing reporters should do if they’ve made a mistake is reach out to their editor. “It’s so important to alert your editor early on so that they can also alert your social media team,” says Mary Beth Griggs, the science editor at The Verge. “They don’t want to push out false information after something has been corrected, so it is really important you tell the social team so they can make sure to pull any scheduled tweets or Facebook updates that might contain that information.”

It is also a good idea to offer phrasing for the correction, because as the writer you have the best idea of what the correction should look like. “Often we will have the writer phrase how the correction should be, so we aren’t just flying into a story and fixing something,” says Morehouse, of Science News. “You don’t want to correct an error by making another error.”

Another critical aspect of mistake correction involves communication between the journalist and the person the mistake involved. For instance, if a story included a misspelling of someone’s name or misstated their gender, Tayag of OneZero says it’s important to apologize as soon as possible. “It’s always so embarrassing, especially if you’ve formed a relationship with that person,” she says. “You just have to be a human person and say ‘I’m so sorry, I messed up and I fixed it right away.’” Science News also has an explicit policy to send a thank you to readers who flag mistakes.

 

Corrections on Social Media

The need for transparency in correcting errors also extends to handling errors on social media, says Heather Mongilio, a reporter for Annapolis, Maryland’s Capital Gazette. Since March 2020, she has released a daily Twitter thread about the state’s COVID-19 numbers. Sometimes, in her haste to get information out, she has typed the wrong date or forgotten to include a key detail. But instead of deleting these tweets, Mongilio retweets the original with a correction. That way, readers see that she’s made a mistake, what the mistake is—and that she’s willing to own up to it, just like the outlets that repeat the mistake in their corrections for the sake of transparency.

 

Sometimes, readers or sources insist that the story contains an error that the journalist and editorial team disagree with. But just because someone, whether it is a scientist, a PR spokesperson, or a source, is demanding a correction doesn’t mean a mistake was made.

 

In the case of Matt Tinoco, the journalist who wrote about the later-retracted study for LAist, the article was updated and Tinoco wrote a follow-up story apologizing for the error. But the original, inaccurate article had already attracted a national audience, including on social media. Some tweets about the piece still linger online, though the original article has an updated headline to reflect the change.

Some outlets, like The Associated Press, delete the original tweet with the mistake and write another tweet replying to the first one and explaining why the previous one has been deleted. Others outlets, like Slate, screenshot the tweet with the mistake and post it as an image, along with the new, corrected tweet. At Reuters, editors will reply to the tweet with the mistake in it with a correction, and then delete the original tweet. “I think there is a little bit of value to deleting it to stop people from retweeting it,” says Slate’s McIntyre. “But also, I wouldn’t want to just totally erase it, like it never happened.”

 

When a Mistake Is Not a Mistake

Sometimes, readers or sources insist that the story contains an error that the journalist and editorial team disagree with. But just because someone, whether it is a scientist, a PR spokesperson, or a source, is demanding a correction doesn’t mean a mistake was made. “I would advise a writer to not get into a debate with the source,” Zeller says. “Sometimes sources are wrong, or sources want things changed just because they don’t like the look of things, but it’s actually not factually incorrect.” Instead, work with your editor to decide what best serves the reader’s interests—not the interests of the person flagging the possible correction.

Often, editors and writers have to decide whether something is a mistake or a difference of opinion or interpretation. In one 2018 Slate article, journalist Rebecca Onion wrote that the national rate of C-sections remained low “even after the mid-20th-century advent of antibiotics and blood transfusions.” A reader wrote in to note that there had been blood transfusions all the way back in the 1800s, and that Slate should fix the error. McIntyre discussed it with the article’s editor, and they decided that while blood transfusions occurred prior to the mid-20th-century, they weren’t common, so no correction was needed.

 

Even Great Journalists Make Mistakes

When Kapoor was told that a figure in her story about food banks was incorrect, she says she felt her stomach drop. But nearly all of the editors I interviewed for this story said that when it came to mistakes, what stuck in their memory was not which mistakes were made, but rather how the reporters reacted to finding out they had made an error. Zeller, who’s served as a judge in some major journalism awards, says he can attest to the fact that having a correction doesn’t disqualify a piece from winning awards. “No one wants there to be a mistake,” says The Verge’s Griggs.* “But people are human, and people do make mistakes, and I think that the more important part to me is how they handle discovering the mistake.”

And remember, says Kapoor: “I think anytime you can indicate to readers that you’re not trying to hide your own fallibility, that can only help the field as a whole.”

 

* Correction 2/9/21: Inevitably, there were mistakes in this story. Due to an editorial error, we erroneously referred to Mary Beth Griggs as being at High Country News. She is at The Verge. The original version of the story also misstated the concept of a “truth sandwich,” reversing which material forms the “outside” of the “sandwich.”

 

 

Shira FederCourtesy of Shira Feder

Shira Feder

Shira Feder is a journalist who has written stories about culture and science for Vox, The Daily Beast, Business Insider, The Forward, HuffPo, and others. She is currently a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @shirafeder.

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