One of the most enjoyable correction-related experiences comes at the end of every episode of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, a sports talk and interview show featuring Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser.
As ESPN explains, at the end of every show, “researcher Tony Reali corrects any statistical fouls Kornheiser and Wilbon made in the heat of battle.” It’s a fun feature that’s often fodder for a little competition between Kornheiser and Wilbon, and it also serves the purpose extremely well: viewers get the right information and no errors go uncorrected. It’s arguably the best example of a regular TV correction anywhere in North America. (Do it better? Let us know.)
Now ESPN has taken its commitment to corrections further. After collaboration between John Walsh, ESPN’s executive vice president and executive editor, and senior staffers in the television, radio, print and online operations, along with consultation with experts at the Poynter Institute, ESPN now has a cross-platform corrections policy and related procedures.
From now on, corrections for any mistaken reporting by ESPN can be found here. A link to the corrections page appears prominently on the drop-down “ESPN” tab on the site, and readers can easily submit a correction using a form on the page. Once submitted, it goes to a senior editorial staffer who forwards it to the appropriate person for evaluation. ESPN is also entering every request for correction into a database, and logging every correction in another. This will enable them to evaluate progress and identify trouble spots. And to help with error prevention, its online operation recently added more copy editors. The end result appears to be a clear policy with appropriate procedures and tracking capabilities.
“It’s the right thing for our fans and users, and the right thing for our journalism,” Patrick Stiegman, the vice president and executive editor of ESPN.com, told us last week in an interview. “Given the fact that our news organization has really matured and we have so many moving parts across different platforms, the time was right to formalize the [corrections] policy and procedures with the idea that espn.com would be the hub for corrections across the company.”
Stiegman says corrections will still continue to* be issued in the originating medium, emphasizing that, “we have always corrected our errors.”
According to the new policy, ESPN will issue online corrections for errors that “involve a significant factual mistake, or materially change the implication or connotation of the reporting.” Stiegman says that, for example, an error in someone’s batting average in an online article would be corrected within the story but not noted on the corrections page. This is what’s called a “scrub” and it’s important that ESPN not get carried away with its scrubbing, lest it become a way to avoid running corrections.
As the policy states, “This policy is not intended to cover inconsequential factual errors, such as minor statistical mistakes, inadvertent and immaterial misidentifications, minor inaccuracies in a developing story or font errors that don't impair the viewers' understanding of a story.”
Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for journalism values and a senior faculty member for ethics at the Poynter Institute, reviewed the policy with three Poynter staff members. “All of us felt the new policy was substantial and meaningful,” he said. “We described it as: ‘well-thought out, thorough, professional, responsible, comprehensive...’ We suggested the ESPN guidelines on corrections ‘will set a new standard for broadcast and online transparency’ and the guidelines could be a ‘model’ for other news organizations.”
As for the increased copy editing resources in the online operation, Stiegman says, “the amount of content being produced was out pacing the copy editing resources behind it.” ESPN also hired an ombudsman 20 months ago.
Overall, it looks like ESPN has taken the issue of corrections seriously and applied the necessary effort and resources to come up with its cross-platform policy and procedures. While the issue of scrubbing is not ideal, it could be acceptable if only applied to the smallest of typos.
ESPN’s work should also serve as notice to all the “hard news” organizations out there who haven’t deemed it necessary to create an online corrections page. That means broadcasters like CNN, CBS, ABC, Fox etc., as well as newspapers like USA Today, which recently totally redesigned its website and neglected to add a corrections page. Perhaps this will spur them into action.
Good night, Canada!
*Correction March 5: The word "to" was originally missing from this sentence. The word "procedure" in the headline also contained an extra "e" in the middle.