News for Digital Journalists

February 29, 2012

Prompt, obvious in-line corrections work best online, research indicates

As this year’s election season hits its stride, the misinformation is flying thick and fast. Every news publisher will have to make lots of corrections. A new social science research report suggests how to make online corrections that really work…

The report this month from the New America Foundation, Misinformation and Fact-checking: Research Findings from Social Science (by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifle), offers an overview of social science findings about how people perceive the accuracy of information—and how misinformation spreads and takes root.

They offer nine recommendations for how journalists and news publishers can combat the spread of misinformation.

Here’s recommendation #2 [emphasis added]:

“Early corrections are better. News organizations should strive to correct their errors as quickly as possible and to notify the media outlets that disseminated them further. It is difficult to undo the damage from an initial error, but rapid corrections of online articles or video can ensure that future readers and other journalists are not misled.

“In particular, media outlets should correct online versions of their stories directly (with appropriate disclosures of how they were changed) rather than posting corrections at the end (which are likely to be ineffective).

“They should also take responsibility for ensuring that corrections are made to articles in news databases such as Nexis and Factiva.”

In effect, this report advocates a Wikipedia-style approach to updating information and making corrections—yet another way that news publishers can learn from Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, in-line corrections are not easily supported by the inflexible content management systems still in use at many major news organizations—but they’re easier to implement with more modern platforms.

The current value of news databases such as Nexis is a bit sketchy, given the predominant role of the internet (especially search engines and social media) in facilitating the spread of information and misinformation alike among the general public. While this report did not mention search engines or social media, news publishers might consider how to leverage these tools to highlight corrections as a way to curb the spread of misinformation.

Standard news practices which effectively bury or sequester corrections to stories are unlikely to gain visibility to the general public, and thus are ineffective tools for combatting the spread of misinformation.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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