It's that moment when, as a journalist, your heart sinks. A source is on the phone telling you how great your story was, how it captured the emotion and the overall meaning of the subject — and, oh, I shouldn't even mention this picky little detail…
Yeah, that's the moment. And you go to your editor and say, I'm sorry, I got this number or statistic or name wrong. Getting it wrong stinks, especially when your error is in print, enshrined for the ages. And the feeling is magnified when the correction is printed in the next edition. But what if your medium is not print? What happens when you make a mistake on air?
I called up our three local TV stations to find out.
Nancy Kent, WWBT-12's news manager, handles all of the station's corrections and clarifications personally. A reporter or anchor may get the call notifying them of an error, but Kent decides when to air a modification to a story.
Her station's policy is to announce a correction immediately after the discovery of a mistake (defined at the station as a "material breach in accuracy"), and a second time during the newscast when the error was made. If a mistake was made in the third story during the 6 p.m. show, the next day's 6 p.m. broadcast will air a correction or clarification (an explanation that provides greater context) during the same segment.
News editors at WRIC-8 and WTVR-6 were called twice and did not return calls.
"Language is an imprecise art," Kent notes. It is, and that's why journalists are bound to make errors.
And we need to make our corrections and clarifications available to the public. It's fine that TV stations air such announcements during the show — but what about the viewers who don't see it?
It would be smart — and generous, especially to a person or business wronged by a reporting error — to post corrections on a dedicated page of the station's website, perhaps for a week or so. The link wouldn't need to be emblazoned across the front page of the site, just clearly labeled.
The local TV stations don't do this — and although Richmond's print outlets handle corrections differently online (our website and Style Weekly note corrections on the same page as the affected stories), none of us has a dedicated and clearly identified corrections/clarifications page. In our printed magazine, corrections run on the Letters to the Editor page.
Every member of the media should consider an online corrections page, complete with an e-mail address for readers to notify us of undiscovered errors. But it's a greater imperative for TV and radio, where the messages, wrong or right, are more fleeting than those in print.