The Observer’s Stephen Pritchard on the problem of placing corrections

Making newspapers print corrections in the same place they made their original mistake is a lot easier in theory than in practice.

At the weekend Observer readers’ editor Stephen Pritchard wrote about some of the practical problems with insisting that, post-Leveson, newspapers provide ‘scene-of-the-crime’ corrections. The argument is that since newspapers vary during the course of an edition, and in size from day-to-day and week-to-week, it is harder for readers to find corrections if they aren’t gathered in one place:

“Last week’s first edition front-page splash on a bishop’s attack on the political manipulation of immigration figures fell out of the paper entirely for one edition and reappeared on page 4 for the last two editions. If it had contained an inaccuracy, where would a correction appear?

The temperature error […] ran on page 2 for the first two editions and was spotted and changed for the third edition (after the whole spread had moved back four pages to make room for the breaking story of the death of the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky). Would we run it on page 2 for two editions only and then drop it?”

Pritchard also raises the issue of dealing with corrections online: “Once you’ve opened a story, everything has ‘equal prominence’.”

Where Pritchard’s argument is weak in the piece is where he states that:

“In the 12 years we have been running corrections, the Observer has had no adjudications against it from the current regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, so we must be doing something right.”

The 800 people who complained about the Observer’s recent Julie Burchill piece which attacked the transgender community, and who have just seen the PCC say there was no case to answer may give a very hollow laugh at that.

Over the years I have principally been concerned with the issue of handling errors, corrections and — crucially — deletions online. One of my gripes with the PPC is that it did little to get to grips with the issue of digital corrections and apologies, and could have served the newspaper industry better by issuing some public guidelines on handling this kind of problem online.*

Best practice, it seems to me, digitally, is both to have a central place to gather together corrections and apologies, and make clear changes to the original article. My preference would be for mistakes to be struck through with <del> tags, and new text inserted. Clearly this isn’t desirable or possible where the concern is a legal one, and a footnote should suffice. Deleting articles is a whole other issue. My “permanent URLs FTW!” heart says that offending articles should disappear, but their URLs remain. My head tells me that can be problematic.

Mirror Alfie Patten 404

The URL on this 404 page still gave away the details of the deleted story

Handling all of these situations involves some thought at the CMS level, and takes time. I lost count of the number of occasions I spotted the Guardian website spelling Christopher Eccleston’s name wrong whilst compiling my Doctor Who ebook, but the process of gathering all the URLs and locations and getting them changed and having footnotes added to the articles sapped my will to live.

Still, whatever system you adopt online, always best to avoid the hubris of The Kernel, eh? Their Corrections and clarifications page snarkily boasted “Nothing to report”, up until the point that the very first thing they had to report was the devastating collapse of one of their stories about Luke Bozier.

The Kernel’s corrections

The prominent boast that The Kernel had no corrections to report badly backfired

UPDATED April 14, 2013: The PCC contacted me to point out that in 2011, contrary to my assertion in this article, they did issue guidelines on the prominence of online corrections.

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