Today kicks off The Sun’s final week of publication this semester and marks the last time in 2009 for this column. With that in mind, I would like to address some reader comments I have received and tie up loose ends with a few thoughts of my own.
During the past two weeks, I received several reader e-mails that echoed a familiar refrain: Mistakes in reporting and line editing detract from what are otherwise well-crafted stories.
One such example singled out by a reader was the Nov. 18 story, “Vonnegut ’44 Lives on Through New Release.” The piece, about a recently released collection of Kurt Vonnegut short stories, noted that the collection was praised by The New York Times, but that other newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, had “yet to mention” it.
The reader linked me to a Los Angeles Times story that ran an excerpt from Vonnegut’s collection. Although the Times piece was not a review, it was still a “mention.” If instead of “yet to mention,” The Sun piece had said, “yet to review,” it would have been correct and would have made the same point as what was published. The Sun story was a good look at the critical reaction to Vonnegut’s collection, but the error significantly alters its impact.
Another example was the Nov. 19 story, “Deputy Defense Secretary Visits C.U.” A reader contacted me, noting that “Guantanamo Bay” was misspelled and that the phrase “Capital Hill” appeared, instead of the correct “Capitol Hill.”
While seemingly smaller errors like this do not necessarily change the meaning of stories, they are still problematic — and are often easy to spot. The Sun’s finished product is generally very thorough and comparable to a professional paper operating at the same scale. Even small mistakes, however, cheapen the value of the final product and frustrate readers.
With these considerations in mind, it might make sense for Sun editors to clarify a correction policy, so all staffers can forge ahead diligently when mistakes are made. Major problems, such as when a story is completely wrong, deserve larger corrections — possibly an additional story — than do smaller mistakes of fact. This is something The Sun has done in the past and should continue to do.
Smaller factual errors generally deserve a separate correction, and this should be handled both in print and online. Correction boxes can be seen on the Opinion page from time to time in the print edition, and online stories that are corrected generally have a “correction appended” note. These are both good principles.
The keys for any correction policy should be transparency and honesty with readers. If this involves explaining what the mistake was in the correction itself, then so be it. To illuminate the distinction, I quote Bill Borders, a senior editor for The New York Times, who wrote about corrections in a 2006 online question-and-answer session: “The goal is to avoid having someone unfamiliar with the original mistake read the correction and think, What in the hell was THAT about?”
I think that those general principles can still be served by taking things a step further. For example, Salon.com’s policy says that “[m]inor errors of spelling, punctuation and the like will be corrected on our web site without notice.” Correcting minor errors on the web is something that The Sun could certainly do more often.
The Sun has been using Twitter, the popular messaging service, to push its stories heavily this semester. Some sections have their own page, including Red Letter Daze and Sports, which takes full advantage of the service by live-blogging from games. This is a great way to draw traffic to the site, and I think The Sun should promote its various Twitter feeds even more in the print edition.
In January The Sun will start its six-week training period for staffers to essentially try out for new editorial positions, culminating with the election of a whole new editorial board in March. I hope to write at least once to shine some light on the process for readers.
I will continue to encourage reader feedback. Ideally, feedback from members of the campus community will drive the content of this column, and I am eager to hear more ideas, reactions and comments.
Rob Tricchinelli is a second-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com. The public editor column appears alternate Mondays this semester.