The blue pencil (Web version)

Web sites make mistakes. What should they do when it happens?

In print, corrections can be buried in agate type on an inside page, but they’re present nonetheless. By contrast, we have awesome revisionist powers online. We can erase mistakes, pages, entire sites. (Hint: Google caches are a useful forensic tool.) It’s unethical to use these Orwellian tools without a degree of transparence, as our French friends say.

An Online Journalism Review survey pointed out the range of corrections policies at work online. You can probably figure out what trend is without even reading the survey: Cover your tracks. Erase your mistakes merely because it’s possible.

We strongly disagree with that practice. Indeed, we’re absolutists on this count. If you make a mistake, correct it in the original article, but state that a correction was made. You don’t have to reiterate the incorrect information, but you have to say where the correction occurred.

(Publications with a geeky readership could probably handle the use of pure HTML markup, namely <ins></ins> for inserted text and <del></del> for deletia.)

Well-organized online publications maintain corrections pages. You should set up bidirectional links between the source article and such pages.

A fun diversion:, tracking online corrections policies. Consider the site a kind of honesty police, even if none of your readers know about it.

Posted on 2000-08-09