Online paper explains mistakes

The Politico publicly owns up to and discusses its mistakes.

Whether it’s to retain readership, protect writers or maintain the illusion of accuracy, many newspapers strive to hide their mistakes. Typically, when a newspaper makes a mistake, a correction will be printed small and toward the bottom of an inside page.

Newspapers that are lucky enough to have a Readers’ Representative, such as The Minnesota Daily and The Star Tribune, might print a column by the Readers Rep. every now and then to discuss ethical issues.

But still, there seems to be a lack of aggressiveness when it comes to newspapers correcting or facilitating discussion about their own mistakes.

The Politico, an online news source, is attempting a creative alternative. Last week, The Politico broke news of John Edwards dropping out of his campaign for president, which got picked up and reported by other news sources. Those news organizations, of course, attributed the exclusive information to The Politico.

That news, however, was incorrect. John Edwards’ announcement was that his wife’s cancer was worsening, not that he was dropping out. The Politico reporter based his information off a friend of the Edwards family and didn’t confirm the information with anyone else.

In response to the flub, reporter Ben Smith wrote an article titled “How Politico Got It Wrong,” and it appeared on the home page. In the article, Smith wrote where he tried to look for information, where he got information, how he first published it and how other news sources picked it up. The story wasn’t an apology, but rather an explanation of how the mistake was made, which is inevitably more valuable to the readers than an apology or a simple correction.

Today, online news sources receive a lot of criticism for supposedly being less reliable sources of information. Some people say the ability for stories to be instantly corrected lowers their sense of accountability. But if online newspapers are willing to facilitate discussion and openly admit their inner processes and mistakes, it could set a precedent for similar behavior in print newspapers, which would ultimately benefit the readers.