How to handle a mistake after it has gone viral

Few journalists like it when they see they’ve made a mistake in public. Mistakes, obviously, vary in significance – from a typo which might get people grumbling in the pub through to the sort of errors which land the editor-in-chief in court.

Focusing on the lower end of the spectrum, digital publishing has made the squirm-for-a-bit-and-take-a-ribbing-from-your-rivals-and-colleagues type mistakes a lot more public. It takes just one photo to be uploaded to Twitter and before you know it, it’s everywhere.

As the East Oregonian newspaper found this week with this, well, howler:

I know very little about baseball, so for all I know is that is possible to be an amphibious pitcher. The reaction on Twitter suggested you couldn’t. It should, instead, have been  ambidextrous. Ouch.

So how to respond? Well, a column like this online helps a lot:

It’s certainly not the first time we’ve picked up an EO and seen a mistake, from the wrong use of a word to improper grammar to just a plain old typo. For regular readers of any newspaper — a community monthly where one person does all the work, or the Wall Street Journal where an entire department looks over every page targeting goofs — a printed mistake is not uncommon. That’s the nature of words and deadlines and the lack of a delete button once that mistake has been pressed in ink.

No excuses. We’ll own it. It was a dumb mistake and it got through, from our desk to the press to the web. Surely we’ll hear plenty about it in the coming week. Then it will die down, life will go on and we’ll give those proofs closer looks.

It’s a cracking read from, I think, the managing editor Daniel Wattenburger, according to the Jim Romensko blog today.

But I think it sums up exactly the sort of approach newsrooms need to take when a mistake is made. Covering it up, if that’s possible, just makes it worse. Trying to ignore it makes it even worse. Journalists are human, and readers will respect that.

PS: The column also includes this line:

And to think: Just a few weeks ago we were Internet heroes, showing the courage and temerity to publish a letter about farts. Now, we’re lowly Internet zeros, publishing unconsciously about frogs.

How much to prove that sentence has never, ever, been written in journalism before?

Maybe farts are to American journalism what dog poo is to the British press. 

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