Transparency online: dont make invisible edits

Question: I am responsible for a small community newspaper’s web site. My boss, the editor, and I have been arguing about protocols for correcting web versions of stories. Let’s say we make a mistake in a story in the paper, or realize later that we left out information. What are the conventions for editing the web version of the story if the print version was (a) corrected and (b) if the error or omission wasn’t deemed worthy of a correction?
Answer by Marissa Nelson.

Marissa_NelsonOnline conventions are sadly not always obvious, especially when it comes to policies for news websites. But the ethics behind correcting errors are exactly the same online as they are in print. Accuracy is the most important thing.
As The Toronto Star‘s public editor Kathy English said in her annual report:
“Accuracy is our most basic contract with readers and is the responsibility of everyone in the newsroom. Anyone who creates content for the Star, in print or online, must be vigilant about accuracy and exercise healthy skepticism.”
As in print, online corrections must be made as quickly as possible.
The difference is the level of transparency readers expect online. When they find errors and report them, they expect a prompt response. If a news organization is found to be changing things secretly or removing stories without explanation, readers will notice. They’ll know either because they’ve already read the story, have a cached version (often thanks to Google) or have a screen capture of the story. Even when a change wasn’t meant to be secretive, it can quickly get misinterpreted if there isn’t total transparency.
I’m a firm believer that you cannot make invisible changes online. If you correct a story online, you must acknowledge in the story that you’ve made changes so readers are aware. Stories are not just the news of the day but your organization’s online archive. So it’s important the archive is accurate. That is why we rarely unpublish things – that’s reserved for the most extreme cases and it usually involves some type of court order or legal issue.
Where an error was made – online or in print – makes little difference to how it is handled online. At, many of our corrections deal with problems that also appeared in print. We also correct many things that wouldn’t warrant a full, newspaper-based correction. In fact, English’s report points out, we had about 248 corrections that went both online and in the newspaper, but a total of 985 online-only fixes or corrections. That isn’t because more errors were committed online. It’s because in many ways, is held to a higher standard of corrections. It’s easy to fix things online, while not all online corrections are deemed significant enough to warrant space in the newspaper.
The easiest way to navigate these waters is to have a clear policy about corrections that deals with the many unique problems of online publishing (regardless of whether the problem originated online or in the newspaper).
It’s equally important to start keeping data on those errors so you can start to spot systemic problems that may be leading to mistakes.

Marissa Nelson is the senior editor – digital news for the Toronto Star and Before coming to the Star as a multimedia trainer she was a reporter at the Hamilton Spectator and London Free Press.