Beginning Monday, every new staff-written article on the Washington Post’s website came with a prominent link labeled “YOUR FEEDBACK: Corrections, suggestions?” One click takes the reader to a form for reporting errors or providing other feedback to the newsroom.
This makes the Post the first major U.S. news outlet to heed the call that MediaBugs, Craig Silverman and I made with the Report an Error Alliance, urging news sites to make this sort of link a standard feature, like the now-ubiquitous “share” and “print” links.
Actually, Post managing editor Raju Narisetti explained in an email that the new corrections link has been long planned as part of a broader content-management system upgrade. Conversations about corrections practices at NewsFoo, a digital news conference organized by O’Reilly in December (both Narisetti and I were there, along with Greg Linch, who recently joined the Post as a web producer), triggered more internal discussions at the Post.
When the software upgrade’s January launch got delayed, the Post decided to move forward with a pilot of the report-an-error feature sooner, using a Google Docs form to collect readers’ input. As Josh Young pointed out, this sort of nimble, “grab whatever tool’s handy” web development is typical at startups but less common at large media companies.
The newspaper recently took heat from departing ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who wrote that the paper had “become riddled with typos, grammatical mistakes and intolerable ‘small’ factual errors that erode credibility.”
In the Post’s blog post announcing the new feature, Narisetti said, “It addresses a chronic complaint that we don’t make it easy for our online audiences to engage with us on stories, whether it is about factual issues or other ways to get us to meet their needs.”
The Post is hardly the only major news outlet to hear this complaint. Our MediaBugs survey of correction practices across U.S. news sites chronicled a widespread pattern of obscurity and inaccessibility in this realm.
But don’t news sites have comments? And can’t readers just post there about errors?
In theory, yes. But in practice, on most news sites, the freewheeling debates and endless digressions of comment forums provide an inefficient channel for the public to get reporters’ and editors’ attention about mistakes and problems in stories. The urgent signal that “you got something wrong” gets buried in the noise.
A dedicated channel for corrections reports and substantive complaints can be a labor-saving device for newsroom managers — a means to solicit priceless intelligence from the readers who, collectively, as Dan Gillmor famously says, know more than any individual journalist does.
I asked Narisetti about reactions inside the Post and from the public.
“The newsroom response so far has been good,” Narisetti replied, “in the sense it helps streamline what was an ad hoc process online even as we have very evolved policies on this in print.” After one day, he said, the paper had received “about six” submissions; two were about points of fact, and one has already led to a correction.
“It’s early so premature to judge,” Narisetti added, “but the real goal is to make it easy for our audiences to engage with us.”
That’s a goal worth setting and working on. What media executives call “engagement” is closely related to what other companies call “customer service.” Whatever you call it, journalists aren’t always comfortable with it, but newsrooms desperately need more of it, and the Post deserves hearty applause for pursuing it.
Here are some suggestions for the Post to consider as it reviews this project and its practices evolve:
Use an icon. The Post places its “YOUR FEEDBACK” link fairly prominently, in a right-column inset. But it’s all text, and the reader’s fast-scanning eye doesn’t always locate it on first pass. (Several people who read an early mention of the feature on Twitter mentioned that they couldn’t find it on the page.) Some sort of icon or image would really help. The Report an Error Alliance has proposed one icon as a standard (it’s right at the bottom of this post!), and there’s an advantage to providing an image that users can recognize across many sites (like the RSS-feed icon). But we also know that most sites are picky about the look and feel of icons, and really, any icon is better than none.
Make the form even easier to use. For instance, right now the form requires the user to input the web address (URL) of the story page by hand. In the final version of the feature, I hope the Post will automatically fill in the URL when the reader clicks on the feedback link from a story. Each step that you can streamline for the user is worth taking.
Coordinate the new feedback loop with the old one. The Post site, like many newspaper sites, still displays a kind of split personality between the corrections policies and practices on the print side and those of the online newsroom. For instance, the “corrections” link at the bottom of every Post page points to a list of recent corrections and a block of instructions that appear to relate mostly to the print product. This gets confusing to readers, who don’t understand the organizational divisions behind such disconnections — and shouldn’t have to.
Make the whole process public. The ultimate purpose for a newsroom to open an error-reporting channel is to restore public trust in the process of verification underlying the news report. To earn maximum trust, the channel ought to be transparent: It should be clear to the public whether the news organization is responding appropriately to reasonable feedback. Placing those responses out in the open, in turn, can help defend the newsroom when it becomes the target of unfair or irresponsible critics. Such transparency creates a kind of bedrock of trust, and it’s one of the motivating principles behind MediaBugs. Whether a news organization partners with a neutral organization like ours or prefers to handle the process by itself, conducting the exchange openly keeps everyone more honest.
We know this all requires some new thinking, and maybe even a leap of faith, for many editors. It isn’t going to happen overnight. But we’re convinced it’s the future.
This post originally appeared on the PBS MediaShift IdeaLab blog.