The correction process is a simple thing in most newsrooms, right? If the news outlet gets something wrong, people will tell the editors — they’ll email or call or post a comment on the website. And then the editors will correct the mistake.
End of story? If only.
One of the early field results of the MediaBugs experiment is a simple one. It turns out that, in the case of many news organizations, including some pretty prominent ones, just figuring out how to tell the newsroom that there’s a problem requires persistence and stamina.
Consider this anonymous error report we received at MediaBugs a few days ago. It said that the Wall Street Journal, in a recent book review, had misspelled the name of the author being reviewed. The book is Mac McClelland’s For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. The Journal spelled her name “McLelland.” (The publisher’s page listing the book, which I’ll take as an authoritative source, spells it with the extra “c.”)
Now, MediaBugs is focused on Bay Area-based news organizations and coverage, and — while we’ll handle reports that focus on the Journal’s Bay Area coverage — we’re not going to deal with most of the paper’s content. So we marked the McClelland report “off topic.”
But I figured that it did seem to be a real mistake, albeit a small one (but not that small, unless you think misspelling the name of the central subject of an article is not a big deal). If I were an editor at the Journal I’d want to know about it and correct it. So as a courtesy I set out to inform the newspaper.
My first stop was the story’s comments, where I thought I’d just post the information and let the Journal editors glean it at their leisure. The page had zero comments, so I figured my note would not be lost in a sea of rants.
I wrote a brief note about the problem, then discovered that I would need to register at the Journal site before they’d accept my comment. So I registered and confirmed my email address, re-entered my comment, and clicked “post.” Nothing happened. I tried again with a different browser, guessing that there might be some browser-specific posting bug. No luck with either Firefox or Safari. No wonder the story has zero comments! So much for that feedback channel. (To try to figure out what the problem was, I took a look at the next day’s Journal books piece. It had five comments — so sometimes, I gues,s the comments work. Interestingly, these comments reported errors in that review: it contained impossible, self-contradictory dates. These errors were reported five days ago. The piece has not been corrected.)
For my second approach, I looked for some link on the Journal site for “corrections” or “report an error.” No such link exists on the Journal home page, nor did searching voluminous “Help” and “Customer Service” pages turn up anything. The “Contact us” page offers three general email addresses for feedback, labeled as follows:
Send a comment/inquiry about an article or feature in The Wall Street Journal to: email@example.com.
React to something you’ve read on WSJ.com at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Offer a comment/suggestion about features and content on WSJ.com at: email@example.com.
I challenge anyone who is not a part of the WSJ organization to interpret which of these three lines of inquiry would be an appropriate choice to report an error. Apparently there’s a distinction between responding to the print and Web editions of the Journal, but what about with stories that appear in both places, as is the case for so much Journal content? And what are we supposed to make of the distinction between “reacting to something you’ve read” and “offering a comment/suggestion about features and content”?
I opted for door number one, since I was reporting a mistake in the printed Journal and that seemed to be the choice relating to the newspaper as opposed to Web-only material. But plainly I was grasping at straws. I sent a polite note to the wsjcontact address, and copied it for good measure to the managing and executive editors’ addresses that were also listed on the Contact page. This was two days ago.
For my third effort, I resorted to the good old telephone. The Journal only lists a single phone number on its Contact page, so I called it. It turns out to be an automated inbox for the entire Dow Jones operation. So you walk your way through the voice menu patiently, only to end up at a recording that tells you there’s no one to receive your call but you’re welcome to leave a message.
So that’s what I just did. I will now rest from my labors. We’ll see if any of these efforts elicits a response, or whether this post somehow prods the Journal beast from its slumber.
I went to these lengths because, right now, this is my work. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about normal members of the public. They won’t jump through these hoops. They will conclude — rightly or wrongly but very understandably, either way — that the newsroom doesn’t actually care about hearing about its mistakes.
If we want to understand why people don’t trust the media, this might be a very good place to start.
[Crossposted to the MediaBugs blog]