Thursday, May 12, 2005

SJ-R Corrects a Tall Tale

A correction in today’s SJ-R quelled the excitement of Illinois fans who had been mistakenly lead to believe that Illini guard and Springfield native Richard McBride would be the Big Ten’s only 8’6” guard next season, creating mismatch problems for opponents and possibly leading the team to another Final Four appearance.

What’s significant about this correction, from a journalistic standpoint, isn’t that McBride stands 6’3” rather than 6’30”., it’s that the correction was given a prominent position on the front page.

In the past, when newspapers thought that to maintain credibility that had to be thought infallible, corrections were buried deep in the pages, if they appeared at all. The rise of other mediums and news sources led to a more sophisticated news consumers who could more easily identify mistakes. Newspapers soon realized that openly acknowledging and correcting mistakes was the only way to maintain integrity.

Bernie Schoenberg explained to me the SJ-R correction policy in an email a few years back. When it was put in to place in 1997, it was one of the most progressive in the country in terms of openness. Their policy is to print the correction on the first page of the section that the error occurred, except for columnists who make their corrections within their column.

A few other interesting points, at least to me, concerning the sprouting guard snafu are this. The SJ-R didn’t identify exactly what the error was (6’30”), just what the correction should be (6’3”). In doing so they avoided further embarrassment over a rather glaring mistake.. This is a common way to make corrections, but it can sometimes lead to confusion.

By printing the correction the next day, they probably staved-off some sarcastic letters-to-the-editor by clever little readers wishing to point out how that McBride “sure has gone through a growth spurt. They’re going to have a tough time defending him next year.” Believe me, it would happen. People can be insufferable like that.

Finally, as of Thursday afternoon, the story on the Web site hadn’t been corrected. There are different opinions on how corrections should be handled on the Web. Some think the change should be made in the story immediately to minimize the number of people who see the erroneous information. Others thinks that the story should remain as published, but a correction appear at the end of the story.

The SJ-R has a separate page for corrections on their Web site that is kept up to date.. The problem with this, especially for errors that are not as obvious as this one, is that most people won’t go to the corrections to see if everything they just read is correct. If an article is archived without being corrected in some way in the article itself, then it goes down on record as incorrect.

The SJ-R doesn’t have a public editor or ombudsman, but I’ll try to get someone from the paper to explain their online correction policy.

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