Readers' Representative Journal

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When mistakes are made ...

September 18, 2008 |  9:34 am

The readers' representative office sometimes hears from readers who claim that the first thing they look at each day is the "For the Record" box on Page A2 (published online at a corrections link on the left bar of the latimes.com homepage). Whether it's an affinity for accuracy or a sense of schadenfreude that's behind their interest in the page, the readers are seeing the result of an emphasis on correcting the record that was strengthened eight or nine years ago at The Times.

The "For the Record" section also includes contact information for the readers' representative office. And many of the corrections and clarifications are there thanks to the participation of (as Jay Rosen at PressThink identifies them) the people formerly known as the audience -- those readers who contact The Times in an effort to help keep the published record straight.

Nowadays, The Times addresses inaccuracies that might have gone unnoted years ago. An opinion piece in Op-Ed in 2001 had Toni Morrison born in "Loraine," Ohio. At the time, a reader noted that the city is spelled "Lorain." No correction ran; today it would be corrected. Why the fuss over an E? It's simpler to acknowledge in writing all misspelled proper nouns rather than have staffers debate how many wrong letters of a name warrant correction.

Though some matters are black and white -- ages that are wrong, proper nouns that are misspelled -- in other cases, things are less clear. The section is called "For the Record" for a reason: Not everything is a correction. Sometimes entries simply clarify.

That gray area is where readers, editors, reporters and members of this office often find themselves wrangling over what warrants a for-the-record. Just one recent example: Did the headline and Sept. 10 editorial about the 99 Cents Only Stores upping prices to 99.99 cents deserve a for-the-record? The headline read "The almost 1% solution." Mathematics-minded readers pointed out that the price change wasn't "almost" 1%. But the editorial referred to a "1% price hike," then said, "or rather, a price hike that approaches 1%." Was the thing wrong? Misleading? Yes, and no. Because the correct figures were in the article, it was decided that for the average reader it wasn't a correctible offense. But -- although letters to the editor cannot be used in place of a for-the-record -- letters-page editors did decide to publish on Sept. 14 a reproval from Christopher Hoffman of Long Beach. As Hoffman pointed out, "A 0.99-cent increase is not 'a price hike that approaches 1%,' it equals 1% exactly. Simple math: 101% of 99 is 99.99. Or 99.9900000000 -- without rounding, the need for a parabolic curve or anything else."

What has brought the most debate in the newsroom these days are questions raised by the fact that The Times publishes constantly, on the Internet.

If an online story is wrong, how should the error be noted? What if a name is off by one letter and for only one minute -- does that warrant correcting? Should a correction stay attached to a longer story even if the mistake was made in an early, short version of the piece?

The guiding principle behind all the answers is the compact the newsroom tries to keep with its readers to be accurate, reliable and honest.

When news articles appear online after they've been printed in the newspaper, the stories become a part of the L.A. Times archives, that permanent record of what the Los Angeles Times has published. That's why when errors are found after a story has been printed, the words in the story aren't changed from what appears in the archives, and a correction is attached. On the other hand, a blog post or news article published only online doesn't involve the archives, so it can be changed -- but readers should be told clearly and directly why the change was made.

While some corrections might bring as much ridicule as praise (a correction on Feb. 19 corrected a Feb. 16 correction that misspelled Curson Avenue as "Curzon"), they show that Times editors take seriously the paper's obligation to publish and keep an accurate record. And at least one study, done in 1999 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, shows that most readers "feel better about the newspaper" when they see corrections of errors they've noticed.

Other general principles include timeliness (corrections should run as soon as possible, while readers still remember the story) and directness (corrections will not assign blame).

That guideline on not assigning blame is one on which staffers have widely varying points of view. Why don't corrections say whether it was the reporter, the subject or an editor that caused a mistake?
Deputy Managing Editor Melissa McCoy puts it this way: "The Times is most interested in correcting the error for the reader, not assigning blame internally. We believe that the reader cares more that we fixed something than about who made the mistake. A correction is the institution's way of saying we got something wrong and we want to make it right. Finger-pointing can quickly detract from that goal."

For those who don't find enough entertainment or enlightenment in the printed and online corrections of the L.A. Times, there's always RegretTheError, a website begun in October 2004. There, Craig Silverman "reports on media corrections, retractions, apologies, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the press" -- and his serious effort includes postings of corrections from around the world, and an invitation to readers to send their own notable finds.

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