When and how should publication errors be corrected?
A day or so after the 1948 presidential election, newspapers across the country ran the photo of a happy President-elect Harry S. Truman holding a copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune with its banner headline: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
As journalism historians tell us, red-faced Chicago newspaper editors ran a retraction, but not without placing at least part of the blame for the publication error on pollsters with their “crystal balls” and “alleged science.” (One wonders what the editors would have thought of today’s market research.)
While most of us responsible for corporate publications haven’t made a boo-boo of this magnitude, I’m sure we’ve all let a few mistakes slip into print. Once discovered, editors can pass through the psychological stages often accompanying great tragedies, including denial (I didn’t do that … did I?), anger (Oh, expletive!) and depression (Where’s my resume?).
Ultimately, corporate editors, just like those at the Daily Tribune, must face the final stage: publishing a correction.
Most newspapers and broadcast media have formal published correction policies, even lawyers and review panels to weigh in on such decisions. Few corporate editors have this level of support.
So what’s an editor to do? What warrants a correction in your publication and what remains as printed?
Consider these three cases:
Case No. 1. A local non profit health facility offered a discount to our staff. I was asked by the club’s well-connected marketing director to include this discount membership information in our publication.
Taking into consideration our employee readers’ needs, I also listed information about discounts offered by other area health clubs.
The marketing director was incensed. She claimed that our readers could now see that other health clubs were a better bargain. She demanded a correction.
Case No. 2. Following a phone interview, I asked a staff member if I could send a photographer to take her picture. She told me we already had her photograph on file from a recent ad campaign. Great! I asked our art department for the photo, received it and ran it. Unfortunately, the art department gave me the wrong photo.
After the story was printed, the staff member sent me an e-mail that thanked me for the article and said how much she loved the publication. However, (Oops!) she informed me the photo with the article was not her. She did not ask for a correction.
Case No. 3. A rather high-ranking leader had been chosen for a significant award. I used the press release to create a short feature including his bio, sent it to him for his review and edits, and asked him to add a quote to help personalize the article. In fact, I sent the draft and request three times over the course of a month, included a deadline and copied his office assistant.
Finally, the day the publication was to go to the printer, several days past the deadline for his response, he e-mailed a quote. We ripped up the page layout and added his comment.
After the article was published, he sent another e-mail noting there was a factual error in his bio about the number of journal publications he had written. This error had originated in the award-granter’s press release and been repeated elsewhere, he said. Could we run a correction?
What should we do? What did we do?
1 On the health club article, I felt there was no error. Actually, I didn’t know what could be changed, because everything was correct as printed. The marketing person simply wanted a story devoted solely to her company. I didn’t write a correction, but two months later I was told to add a very short, two-sentence promotional mention of her company into our news briefs section to keep everyone happy … and I did.
2 With the mistaken photo, I ran the correct image and identification in the next issue with a note saying we were sorry about the mistake. It was our fault, and I thought we should make it right. I included the staff member’s comment that she enjoyed reading our publication and thanked her for her support.
3 For the bio error I changed it in the electronically posted version but did not put a correction in the next print publication. Perhaps any factual error is significant and should be corrected, but this seemed low-impact. In addition, the error made it into print because of the leader’s own lack of responsiveness.
So, what do you think? Were these the right decisions? What would you have done?
Eddie Torr is the pen name of a corporate editor living in the Midwest.