Our Report an Error Alliance has won a couple of great endorsements. NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard has recommended that NPR implement a Report an Error button. And at the NewsFoo conference last weekend in Phoenix, a by-invitation gathering of journalists and digital innovators, Tim O’Reilly told people that Report an Error was “the most important thing” he’d seen at the event. (Grin!)
At NewsFoo, I got the chance to talk about both MediaBugs and Report an Error. I did also hear some thoughtful criticisms of the Report an Error effort, and I’d like to record them here and respond to them. (I’ll do my best to present these perspectives fairly, but I’m working from memory and paraphrasing.)
(1) The messaging is off. One participant felt that the whole “Report an Error” button concept gets the conversation between a media outlet and a reader off on the wrong foot. Why would a media outlet want to open the discussion by saying, “Tell me what I did wrong?” Why would a publisher put a big red-and-black “X” on the page?
Well, the icon is only big on our Report an Error Alliance home page — on most news pages, it will be as tiny as a “print” or “share” icon, and we have monochrome versions of it for anyone who finds the red-and-black scheme a turnoff. (I kinda like it, but of course it’s a matter of taste.)
More importantly, here’s why we chose to go with “report an error” rather than something vaguer like “send feedback” or “tell us how we’re doing”: “Report an error” is blunt and specific — and we believe that’s good! It says, forthrightly, “We know we make mistakes, and we definitely want to hear about them.” Most sites already have general feedback channels of various kinds, and of course the majority of sites today have comments, too. Yet error reports offered through these channels frequently languish unanswered.
Maybe it’s a little idealistic to propose that news sites give an interface feature a name that is direct rather than euphemistic. But maybe it’s just good pragmatic design. And publications from the Toronto Star to the Huffington Post (which labels its link “Report corrections”) have already agreed.
(2) It’s just more overload. According to this criticism, news sites that are already doing a good job listening to their readers’ feedback through existing channels don’t need to add a new one. And those sites that already feel overwhelmed by the channels they have won’t do any better by adding one more.
I’m sure there’s some truth to this argument. Handling feedback well isn’t just a site design or interface issue, it’s a management skill.
But I still think there’s value in prioritizing readers’ error reports over more general feedback. I can envision plenty of cases where editors who are trying to make their organizations more responsive might find it helpful to be able to signal their staff and their audience that error reports get special treatment.
Using a “report an error” button is a way of telling the public, “Sure, we want to know what you think. But if you think we made a mistake we really want to know it, fast.” At the same time, the buttons tell the news staff that these reports matter more than random gripes and drive-by comments, and deserve considered responses.
(3) Readers will bombard us with general comments. An editor at one of our leading national newspapers said that he’d be concerned about adding “report an error” buttons because seven out of ten messages wouldn’t be reports about specific factual errors but more general complaints along the lines of “you got the whole thing wrong” — to which his staff would still have to respond.
As someone who managed a shrinking newsroom for five years, I have great empathy with this perspective. But I think there’s a way in which the dedicated “report an error” button can actually be a labor-saving device for resource-strapped newsroom managers.
Assuming that said managers actually want to see error reports — if they don’t, this whole discussion is moot — then surely it’s an easier matter to sift the specific reports from more general complaints than to try to fish them out of an even noisier and lengthier comments section. And of course a publication could always choose to put a MediaBugs widget behind the Report an Error button (as I do here on this blog) — in which case our moderation of bug reports at MediaBugs can help with the filtering.
As for the need to respond to this onslaught: Yes, it’s a burden. But it’s also an opportunity to re-engineer the newsroom’s relationship with its readers, to engage with the public on matters of substance, and to begin to restore some trust in the product of journalism. Surely that’s worth the effort.