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E-Mailbag: How Does CBS News Handle Corrections?

Craig Silverman, editor of Regret The Error, has contacted PE regarding corrections and how they are handled. The self-described mission of Regret The Error is to report "on corrections, retractions, clarifications and trends regarding accuracy and honesty in the media." Usually focused on newspapers, most of which have corrections printed on pretty much a daily basis, Silverman today wonders about TV news organizations:

We're often asked why we don't spend more time scrutinizing broadcast media. The answer is simple: With the exception of a few places like NPR and the online operation of MSNBC, the vast majority of broadcast media don't have an online corrections section. Nor do they reserve a portion of their programs to offer corrections to previous stories. In extreme circumstances they will put one online or in a broadcast, but most of the time there's nothing to be found unless someone happens to be watching at the right time.
Silverman e-mailed to alert us to his post (which is complimentary of PE) and to ask us how the network deals with corrections in general and posed several direct questions about corrections at CBS News and CBSNews.com:
How do they handle errors in broadcasts? How do they correct them? What fact checking process is in place? What about corrections on its website?
While not perfect by any means, I think it's important to start out by stipulating the differences between newspapers and television news, particularly the network evening news broadcasts. The volume of copy in even a mid-market daily newspaper is exponentially larger than the volume of copy in a 30-minute news broadcast (more like 20 minutes with commercials). So newspapers are more likely to make errors than television, at least when it comes to news programming.

Still, even 20 minutes of airtime leaves plenty of room for mistakes. Linda Mason, Senior Vice President for Standards and Special Projects at CBS News told me how the network deals with those mistakes depends largely on how substantive the error – and that is a judgment call. Mason said if an error is serious enough it is corrected on the air, as the "Evening News" recently did when it displayed the wrong picture of one of the prisoners who escaped from Gitmo. But if it is a minor factual error or "something that clarifies or puts an issue in a better context," a note would be made on the Web site where there is more space. Mason also said that all scripts are fact-checked before airing, but noted that does not guarantee mistakes are always avoided.

The Web site is a place where errors made both on air and on the site can easily be corrected. Mike Sims, director of News and Operations for CBSNews.com, says any potential error will be looked at and will receive either a "clarification" or a "correction" depending on what is warranted. Where the clarification or correction is carried, and how long it remains on the site, depends on the importance of the issue. "The visibility it gets depends on how serious it is," said Sims, who also noted that unless an error is caught immediately, changes are always to be noted.

(Now it's my turn for a clarification: A correction or clarification will always stay with the story on the Web site. Whether it remains on a section page or in a higher visibility location depends on the seriousness of the issue. Isn't this fun?)

Here are some recent examples of how mistakes have been handled, starting with something that happened today:

  • On the Web site, there was a correction to the story on Tiger Woods, carried at the very top of the page. On the broadcast, Woods was described as the first minority golfer to win "a major championship" tournament. In fact, Lee Travino, a Hispanic-American, was the first, winning the U.S. Open in 1968 and other major championships afterwards.
  • There was an editor's note posted on the Web site regarding correspondent Steve Hartman's story last Friday about how many of the homeless in New York City receive their mail through general delivery at the post office. That story used the wrong name for a group helping the homeless that was mentioned in the piece. Instead of the Coalition for the Homeless, the group mentioned should have been The Partnership for the Homeless.
  • We recently dealt with a much larger corrections issue when the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri noticed that "48 Hours" had altered one of the paper's front-pages in a story about a local murder trial. That error led to an apology to the newspaper, an apology posted on the Web site and an on-air apology on the next edition of "48 Hours." While this was more a breach of standards than a minor error, it is an illustration of how mistakes are handled at the network.

    On the web site, corrections or clarifications may be posted in the story, on an individual section page or in other locations – even multiple places – depending again on how serious the error is judged to be. I asked Sims and Mason about the possibility of having a "corrections page" on the Web site and both said that is something there has been plenty of discussion about. Sims said everyone is considering the issue and "trying to find the best way" to institute corrections on the site. Stay tuned, we'll let you know if and when that discussion comes to any kind of implementation.

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