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This Is What A Good NPR Correction Sounds Like

Mar 21, 2018

Last Friday, All Things Considered aired a four-minute piece that was an extended on-air correction to an on-air interview that aired two days earlier, about Gina Haspel, President Trump's nominee for director of the CIA.

As corrections go, it was major. The original mistake was made not by NPR but by ProPublica, an independent investigative news organization on whose reporting NPR often cites, as in the Wednesday interview with the ProPublica reporter who had investigated the role Haspel played at a secret CIA prison.

On March 15, ProPublica issued a retraction, a correction and an apology about key details of its February 2017 report (which had resurfaced last week). NPR quickly followed suit with online corrections or editor's notes to the Wednesday interview and three other stories (not all of which had explicitly mentioned ProPublica, and two of which ran in 2017). In addition, Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, was tapped to voice a correction that was appended to the archived audio of the Wednesday interview, so that those who stumbled only upon the audio would also hear the correction. The Two-Way blog also wrote a post about the ProPublica retraction and documented NPR's responses.

The responses were admirable; NPR handled the corrections swiftly and with great care, as a trustworthy news organization should. Memmott told me the goal was to uncover as many of the places as possible where NPR repeated the false information and make sure they were corrected. (A link to the corrections blog can be found at the bottom of the home page.)

In a September 2017 column I argued that too few of NPR's mistakes are corrected on air. At the time I wrote the column the newsroom was working on a new protocol that I hoped would lead to more on-air corrections, or at least more reminders that corrections can be found online, but so far there has been no major change. Not all corrections deserve the full treatment that this one got, but there should be many more stories that are corrected on air. (Better yet, there should be fewer mistakes.)

I have one more gripe about a related corrections policy. NPR continues a practice I find troubling, that of "stealth" corrections even for major errors. These are on-air mistakes that are caught at the time they are made and then simply cut (or "bladed") out of the subsequent re-broadcasts of the piece (NPR pieces repeat multiple times, including across time zones).

As I wrote in my column last September, on the one hand, it's important to get an error out of circulation quickly, to limit the number of people who hear it. On the other hand, listeners who want to double check what they heard are often confused when they go to NPR.org and the transcript does not reflect what they thought aired.

That was the case with a major error last month. NPR quickly cut it from the on-air rebroadcasts, but did not post an immediate online correction. A listener noticed and complained.

I'm glad that NPR finally added the online correction this week (a month later), but it should have happened much sooner (and on air, as well, in my opinion). Memmott told me that not every mistake that gets "bladed" needs a correction; some are minor. "But something that important deserves one," he told me.

In a perfect world, journalists wouldn't make mistakes. But an equally important measure for a newsroom is how it handles the mistakes that do inevitably creep in. NPR's handling of the ProPublica mistake was a model way to deal with an error; I only wish the newsroom would be equally aggressive about more of its corrections.

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