On July 2, I published a blog entry criticizing The Kansas City Star for its corrections policy.
Specifically, I said that the paper, by not running corrections on the same page every day (or every time it carries corrections), was devaluing the corrections and effectively compromising the paper’s credibility.
As evidenced by the handling of a story last week, The Star’s corrections policy is much more flawed than I realized. I was surprised to learn that The Star does not acknowledge errors in stories that appear online only; it merely corrects them and goes on.
Furthermore, insofar as stories that appear in print, it does not acknowledge in the electronic archives accessible to the public that an error was made. Again, it merely amends the story as if it were correct all along.
In other words, as far as I can tell, errors — whether made in the printed edition or online versions — are not acknowledged anywhere in the electronic archives accessible to the public. Poof! Errors disappear without a trace. The reporters must love it.
Internally at The Star, it’s another story. Archived stories in the newspaper’s so-called electronic library make a note of corrections or clarifications right up top.
The issue of the paper’s corrections policy arose again in the case of Brian Euston, the 24-year-old man who died in Westport early the morning of Oct. 10.
On Wednesday, Oct. 13, the paper posted an online story under the headline “Man who died in Westport beating ‘could make everyone smile.’ ” In the printed edition, the headline read, “Man who died ‘could make everyone smile.’ ”
No mention of a beating. And, as it turned out, The Star had no proof of a beating. In fact, the body of neither the print nor the online story referred to the possibility of a beating.
And yet, The Star went with the misleading headline for more than a day.
What prompted The Star to pull the headline was a post by Hearne Christopher of kcconfidential.com calling The Star to task on the erroneous headline. Hearne interviewed a police spokesman, who said he had called the problematic headline to the attention of Star representatives but was ignored — until the kcconfidential story.
Police have said they are trying to determine what caused Euston’s death.
For its part, The Star tiptoed around the problem, only acknowledging it in readers’ representative Derek Donovan’s blog, called Ad Astrum. Donovan posted comments from three people, two of whom criticized the paper for the headline. (The third writer said he felt sure that Euston’s death would turn out to have been the result of a beating.)
One of the two critics wrote: “How many people saw the headline, scanned the article, then went around recounting the story of someone beaten to death in Westport? Was there a correction printed anywhere but in this blog?”
The answer, again…No.
Then Donovan weighed in with his opinion and his report of Star policy: “The ‘beating’ only showed up in the online headline, which I simply fixed,” he wrote. “The Star’s policy is to remove or fix errors online, but not to run a separate correction about them. I agree with this policy, as I find notes saying ‘This story used to contain an error’ completely pointless and retrograde.”
Well, I think the policy is completely wrong-headed and that Donovan’s “retrograde” theory could stand some retrospection. The “see no evil” policy is akin to the Catholic Church’s line of reasoning in granting annulments: The marriage never happened. Didn’t exist. Slate wiped clean. Re-deal.
The Ad Astrum critic pointed up the inanity of the policy as eloquently and clearly as humanly possible: “How many people saw the headline, scanned the article, then went around recounting the story of someone beaten to death in Westport?”
That would be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people.
The Star was so good for so long — decades — on corrections that it is simply a damn shame it has come to this.
The paper that I often hold up on a pedestal, The New York Times, takes a different tack, as you might imagine. On Tuesday, I e-mailed Art Brisbane, a former Kansas City Star publisher, who now is public editor for The Times.
He said: “Any time there is a correction involving a story (or column) that appears online, there is a notice of the correction appended to the story itself. In the body of the story, the erroneous matter is corrected. So, the upshot is that you read a corrected story and you know the story has been corrected because there is a notice appended to it.”
The Times handles errors in print-edition stories the same way — correcting the text in the archived version and appending a correction at the bottom.
Brisbane sought verification on his statement from Gregory E. Brock, senior editor for standards, who said in an e-mail:
“The guiding principle is: we do not change facts online without telling readers that we made the error — and what the error was. We do not acknowledge changes for typos/grammars. But any editing that might clarify or reshape a point is acknowledged. (This is what we used to call “writing through” the article between print editions — never having to worry that someone would notice that it had changed. Now everyone notices!)”
Brock said The Times also corrects mistakes on blogs it sponsors: “But we give the bloggers the option of acknowledging the error in the actual blog (assuming the blog is done in a conversational way). If it is a more serious blog, we append the more formal correction line to the bottom.”
Now there’s a fast and firm corrections policy: Correct everything, everywhere, and let the record show that the paper screwed up.
The Star, on the other hand, corrects when and where it chooses and leaves no tracks for the readers to see its mistakes.
Call it the whitewash policy.
Oh, yes, there’s one more thing: I e-mailed Derek Donovan on Tuesday, asking him if he thought it might be time for The Star — what with the ever-increasing tilt toward online journalism — to develop a better system for dealing with errors that occur in online stories.
What did I hear back? Nothing. Like an annulment, I guess, my e-mail just never existed.
P.S. This piece was published first, this morning, on kcconfidential.com, compliments of Hearne Christopher, who planted the bee in my bonnet.