Research (Vol. 57): Errors, Requests, Apologies…

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A case study of 50 years of corrections in a college newspaper

By Alyssa Appelman, Northern Kentucky University
and Kirstie Hettinga, California Lutheran University

Abstract: Corrections increase transparency and credibility, but college newspapers rarely publish them. This study explores trends in college newspaper corrections. In particular, it analyzes 50 years of corrections at a sample college newspaper and its website. Through thematic analysis (N = 95 corrections), it discusses changes in correction style and content over time. It explores the struggles of college newspapers, as well as the influence of professional news outlets. In particular, the authors identified a shift from early “requests for corrections” to more “modern” corrections that included labels and apologies. It also finds a strong influence of the student editor, who occasionally published specific calls for transparency and accuracy. As student newspapers have significant staff turnover, this study recommends that messages about corrections and accuracy be shared by student media’s consistent forces: relevant classes, publication handbooks, and—perhaps most importantly—faculty advisers.

Keywords: Corrections, Accuracy, Transparency, Classes, Handbooks, Advisers

Method: Thematic Analysis

Corrections are a critical mechanism for news organizations to build transparency. When journalists make mistakes, the argument goes, then they should publish a correction, clarification or retraction—some indication that a mistake was made while providing the accurate information for the readers. Media researchers (e.g., Nemeth and Sanders 2009) and practitioners (e.g., McBride 2019) have noted that corrections foster higher perceptions of credibility.

Despite the valuable role of corrections, their history is a little spotty. They have not always been seen as a positive thing; for example, they were not truly standardized by The New York Times until the early 1970s (Silverman 2007). Corrections are arguably necessary for news media to be truly ethical, but, as noted by LaRocque (2005), it is not something many news organizations are fond of doing. This seems to be particularly true with student journalists.

Corrections are rare in college student newspapers (e.g., Hettinga, Clark, and Appelman 2016). Of course, lack of corrections does not mean lack of errors. Mistakes often go uncorrected, particularly online (Maier 2007). Despite the likelihood of errors, student media corrections—and related research—are relatively limited.

This study seeks to fill that gap by examining college media corrections. In particular, it analyzes 50 years of corrections at a sample college newspaper and its website. Through thematic analysis, it discusses shifts in correction style and content over time. It explores the struggles of college newspapers, as well as the influence of professional news outlets. In doing so, it suggests ways for college newspapers to enhance accuracy and credibility.

Literature Review

History and Role of College Student Newspapers: Various student newspapers claim to be the oldest in America, with varying levels of credence to their claims (College Media Matters 2013). The oldest to claim the designation hails from Dartmouth in 1799, whereas other contenders include The Cornell Daily Sun, The Harvard Crimson, and The Miami. The “youngest” newspaper with the “oldest” claim of publishing was founded in 1878, indicating a nearly 90-year span of contention. Regardless of age, student newspapers have long served as an educational opportunity for students to hone their journalistic craft. According to Carlson (2014), a 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index survey of 30,000 Americans found a relationship between this type of work (“where students were able to apply their classroom knowledge”) and later career and job engagement.

The student newsroom is one such activity in which students can apply their classroom learning to a more “real-life” situation; however, they range in their degree of similarity to professional publications. Some college publications produce content daily online and multiple days each week in print, whereas others print only weekly or monthly. Some are fully converged newsrooms—in which traditionally siloed platforms of broadcast, print, and online come together—whereas others are producing these types of content separately. Kopenhaver (2014) noted that nearly 20 college newspapers in the United States have annual budgets as big as $750,000 to more than $1 million, while other student publications operate on shoestrings. Some rely on student fees (Grasgreen 2013) or curricular funding, and others are completely financially independent. Others rely on curricular, or lab, models in which the publications are classroom work products. Despite such differences, student publications have much in common, as well, particularly in terms of their overall purpose. Kopenhaver (2014) wrote:

Student media throughout history have challenged authority, reported the truth about their campus communities, ensured an accurate portrayal of facts, and sought to provide the public with information they need. And—importantly—they have served as the foundation for the journalists of the future to train, practice and perfect their craft.

Kopenhaver (2014) noted that since the beginning “college student media have attempted to mirror their professional counterparts” (para. 1). One way in which college media outlets mirror professional ones is in this quest for the “accurate portrayal of facts.” That means that media outlets need to address inaccuracies when they inevitably occur.

Corrections and Accuracy

College student journalists, like professional journalists, make mistakes, and this could occur for any number of reasons. It could be that, as argued by Gilmore (2013), the inexperience of student journalists contributes to error. It also could be that the nature of their employment—often voluntary—makes them less attentive to details. It could be that their transitory nature on campus makes them unaware of the history of the community, or it could be that, as the saying goes, to “err is human.”

In any case, journalists have an existing remedy to these inevitable situations: corrections. Corrections are a small way for newspapers to demonstrate their commitment to accuracy to their readers. Kelly McBride, senior vice president of Poynter and Craig Newmark Journalism Ethics Chair, recently wrote, “In my experience there’s a direct correlation between journalistic quality and the amount of time and energy a news organization spends on corrections” (2019, para. 15).

Corrections are notes written by editors to amend the record when a mistake is made. Despite journalistic dedication to accuracy, mistakes in a high-speed news environment do happen. In a study of news accuracy, nearly two-thirds of news and feature articles had errors according to sources (Meyer 2004 and Maier 2005), sources reported errors in 61% of local news and feature stories. LaRocque (2005), however, noted that many news organizations are not fond of running corrections, often because of unintended consequences: “One of the unhappy truths of running corrections, though, is that the correction can sometimes attract more attention than the original error” (31).

Craig Silverman wrote the book on corrections, “Regret the Error,” and noted the practice’s history. He attributed the “first formal corrections policy” to Publick Occurences in 1690 and noted that modern corrections policies emerged in the 1970s, including the convention of correction “anchoring,” where corrections are run in the same place in each issue. Since then, additional changes in professional newsroom structures led to changes and concerns regarding corrections. Researchers have been concerned with the possibility of increased errors in the absence of copy desks (Russial 1998) and with more consolidated copy desk structures (Martin and Martins 2018), though the actual impact of such digital changes are mixed. Additionally, Maier (2007) found that online mistakes are often not explicitly corrected, but rather just changed. This unacknowledged changing—or “scrubbing”—has been called out as a problematic, unethical practice (e.g., Cornish 2010; Silverman 2007).

Changes in policies have been shown to be effective. Nemeth and Sanders (2009), for example, found that a decision to revamp the corrections process at The New York Times led to The Times publishing more corrections, which “may have improved that newspaper’s reputation for fairness and accountability” (100) and that the increase in corrections may enhance reader relations. In essence, running corrections when necessary is considered a marker of credibility.        Despite their connection to credibility, corrections are relatively rare in college newspapers. In one of the few related studies, college newspaper websites were found to be similar to professional publications in terms of their impact, objectivity, and type (Hettinga, Clark, and Appelman 2016). Corrections were only found in a bit more than 50% of the college newspapers examined; however, they were more likely to be found at ones that were more professional in terms of their publication frequency and financial independence. Some research suggests that college newspapers print corrections only in severe situations. Johnson (2013), for example, reported that “viral” stories and the potential speed of misinformation demands swift corrections, citing a college newspaper that incorrectly reported the number of people killed by a tornado. Why does this happen? This study explores one possible explanation for the lack of corrections in college newspapers—the problem of turnover.

The Problem of Turnover

High turnover at college newspapers is the norm; a student might work on a college newspaper for a few years, or even just for a semester or two. In a long-form investigation of corruption, a faculty mentor noted, “With student journalists, the turnover is unbelievable,” (Koros 2015, para. 7). Ascarelli, Huckins, and Collopy (2013) described this as one of the unique struggles of college newspapers. This can have multiple implications, including constant hiring and training. This project argues that turnover also specifically affects corrections, or the lack thereof. Colleges have several elements in place that can help maintain consistency despite turnover, all of which could potentially help when teaching accuracy and corrections. However, as seen below, it remains unclear how effective they are in achieving this goal.

Program Coursework. One thread of consistency over time could be classes, which could teach students about accuracy and corrections. In practice, however, these issues and practices are not often taught in meaningful ways. Copy editing classes, which would, ostensibly, be the core place to discuss this practice, are already being asked to teach multiple skills and theories; the switch from print to digital has already increased the number of topics instructors are expected to cover. Hettinga (2016a) looked at 10 popular journalism textbooks and found that the majority dedicated little space to defining and discussing accuracy. Additionally, not all students who work on college newspapers are journalism majors, so teaching this in classes, though useful, might not solve the problem.

Publication Handbooks. Another area for stability might be found in student newspaper handbooks or policy manuals. Kanigel (2011) described the student newsroom manual as a critical tool for assimilating student journalists into the newsroom: “A good staff manual can: Give the paper a foundation and sense of continuity, even in the face of high turnover” (16). In “The Student Newspaper Survival Guide” a former student media adviser echoed that sentiment, saying that “A handbook serves as a point of reference for continual newsroom policies” (16).

This is also in line with the practices of professional organizations, which commonly have established norms and standards that are codified in published style guides, handbooks, and codes of ethics. However, student newspaper policy manuals and handbooks often lack specifics regarding corrections; in other words, “corrections policies were common, but ranged in their effectiveness” (Hettinga 2016b, 9). That study—titled “Student newspaper manuals need clarification on correction practices”—found that student newspaper handbooks noted the need for corrections, but often lacked guidance, as “there is no information about what actually warrants a correction, or how to format the correction” (15). Additionally, as in professional newsrooms, it’s unclear whether students follow the handbooks, so, even if these guides are updated, they might not have the desired effect.

Faculty Advisers. The faculty adviser can also be a thread of consistency for student publications. Advisers tend to stay with college papers for many years. In a survey of college media advisers (N = 379), Kopenhaver (2015) found that while the norm used to be three or more years as adviser, that’s no longer the case. She found that more than 40% reported working as an adviser for more than 15 years; one-third had been working with their current publication for 5-9 years, almost 25% for 15 or more years, and 14% for 20 or more years (Kopenhaver 2015). In other words, “Advising has become a career path, one in which longevity is a hallmark.” Thus, the adviser can be seen as a source of consistency for an inconsistent staff. As discussed by Hettinga (2018), advisers do teach accuracy in college newsrooms, though this is often at a more practical, rather than theoretical level.

With the somewhat limited body of research on corrections in college newspapers, the purpose of this study is to explore corrections in one student newspaper over time. Does it publish corrections? Was that always the case? And, if changes have occurred, are they related to one of the safeguards against the problem of turnover? This leads to the study’s core question: How did the style and content of corrections change in a college newspaper over its 50-year history?

Method

Data Collection: This study analyzed a weekly student newspaper at small, private, liberal arts university as a case study.[1] This newspaper was chosen because of its accessibility and because of its history; it includes corrections before and after the 1970s, which, as noted by Silverman (2007) marked the professional shift in correction style.

The print edition’s digital archives were available for issues between 1961 and 2010, and the publication’s website has searchable archives beginning in 2013; there was a gap in accessible archives during this online transition. Additionally, there were a few missing issues, including all volumes from 1976 to 1983. To find corrections in the sample—through the digital archives before 2010 and the website after 2013—the researchers conducted keyword searches for “correction,” “correct,” “error,” and “editor’s note.” In the data collection process, they observed that the newspaper sometimes used related terms to address such issues, so they searched the archives again to include the terms “for the record” and “mistake.”

Though the archives were available from 1961, no search results appeared using the keywords until 1968. Upon closer examination, the researchers saw that the search results revealed a few items that were announcements, more than corrections (e.g., a text box labeled “For the record” in 1993: “Security listings were not available from the Student Affairs office this week”), so those were removed from analysis. Additionally, the results revealed three specific calls for accuracy, which were not corrections per se, but were letters from editors and staff discussing the newspaper’s correction policies and goals.

In all, the researchers identified and analyzed corrections (N = 95) and calls for accuracy (N = 3) in 50 years of the sample newspaper (from 1968 to 2019). Of the corrections, 77 were from the print edition’s digital archives, and 18 were on the newspaper’s website. These include corrections of objective errors in fact (e.g., from 1991: “Last week’s baseball statistics were for the top eight in batting average and not a list of the starting players”), as well as notes about missing information (e.g., from 1987: “Inadvertantly [sic], last week’s poll did not include the statement that 1 is strongly agree, 3 is no opinion, and 5 is strongly disagree.”). They include minor issues (e.g., from 2005: “Article in Nov. 8 issue stated waterpolo is in its 2nd season. It is in its 3rd.”), as well as larger problems (e.g., from 2018: “The article ‘CLU’s new 2018-2019 Senate director elected’ was removed from the website because of falsified information.”). Generally speaking, the majority of infractions could be classified as minor—name errors, title errors, failure to include bylines, etc. The corrections appeared in various pages and sections of the newspaper and, later, its website.

Case Study and Thematic Analysis

The researchers conducted a thematic analysis of these corrections to explore the evolution of corrections practices. As this research is limited to the archive of one student newspaper, it can best be described as a case study. In his defense of the method, Flyvbjerg (2006) noted the importance of case studies as context-dependent sources of knowledge (221) and ends with a call for more case studies in the social sciences (242).

After collecting the data through the archives, the researchers conducted multiple close readings (Braun and Clarke 2013) of the corrections. They noted commonalities and patterns, in terms of the type and style of corrections. They also noted historical trends, including, for example, shifts in titles (from “Correction” to “For the Record”) and tone (from matter-of-fact to apologetic), which were then compared and analyzed.

Findings

Thematic analysis revealed significant shifts in correction style and content over time. The researchers saw the emergence of themes that mostly reflected the history of corrections, professionally, as well as the specific efforts of the publication’s editors.

Early “Requests for Corrections”

The earliest identified correction would not resonate with the modern reader as a correction. As noted, the first correction found through the archive was published in 1968. It was not labeled as a correction and specifically pointed out an error in a new campus publication, not the paper itself. The next correction, published in 1969, might be more identifiable by today’s standards; it was labeled as a correction and addressed a factual, byline error. However, following that correction, the authors identified an era of “requests for corrections.” These were not modern corrections, but instead signed letters to the publication that identify a mistake and request a correction; sort of like letters to the editor, but without any responses. No correction or editor responses were attached to these requests. One such example from 1969 reads:

REQUEST FOR CORRECTION: Typographical (?) error, page 3 of the January 17 ECHO. Article entitled “A Welcome Change” “It seems that the only practical solution lies in properly controlled use of new scientific knowledge—preferably apolitical control.” (Not—“preferably a political control”) This error completely changes the viewpoint of the article, which is my reason for requesting a correction. Thank you, Gerald S. Rea.

Such requests culminated in 1985 with a lengthy letter labeled “Angry request for precise information.” This signed request seeking transparency or clarification is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: A 1985 “request for correction.”

“Modern” Corrections: Labels and Apologies

Two other requests for corrections—noted in 1969 and 1972—looked slightly more like modern-day newspaper corrections. The requests in 1969 and 1972 address a math problem and a name error, respectively. Notably, these more modern corrections appear around 1970, which is right around the time professional publications began standardizing their corrections practices (Silverman 2007). A more modern style of correction does not reappear again until 1986. Here, the authors began to see more labeling of corrections—either as “Correction” or “For the Record”—but it is often unclear in which article the original error actually appeared.

Though corrections continue to appear after 1987, they vary in style and take their most significant jump in 1991. At this point, more modern conventions such as labeling and identifying the article in which the error appeared emerged. The first “apology” appeared in 1992, and the corrections started regularly including dates and headlines for the initial error in 1993. Figure 2 shows a “modern” correction from this era.

Figure 2: A 1992 “modern” correction.

This style remained relatively consistent until the newspaper began publishing online in 2011, when the placement began to differ. As with professional publications, the online corrections were appended to articles, rather than in a separate “Corrections” box. An anchored online page was introduced in 2018, but corrections were still attached to the articles, as well.

The Editors’ Influence

In addition to this general trend of increasing consistency, the researchers observed the potential influence of individual editors. As noted, three specific calls for accuracy were found, in 1997, 2005, and 2018. Student newspapers, as discussed, are marked by constant turnover, so these were written by three different editors, representing three completely different staffs.

The note from 1997 ran in every available issue that fall semester. It tells readers the publication’s policy of correcting mistakes and provides contact information for readers to report “errors that significantly affect a story.” The first issue of that spring semester also included an editorial asking for student, faculty, and administration support, which began with a note about accuracy: “Complaints, direct and by word-of-mouth (but never for publication as a correction or Letter to the Editor), have arisen regarding the quality of [publication].” Four corrections ran during that school year, all anchored in “For the Record” boxes on page 3 of the News section.

The 2005 and 2018 notes were more specific letters from the editors in chief to readers. The 2005 letter included the following:

We are changing some internal things to work on our credibility, but the one that most affects the [publication’s] readers is that we are printing corrections. Now that we are doing this, though, we hope that our readers will take advantage of this improvement and let us know when we make mistakes. We want to know if somebody is misquoted, if a name is misspelled and of any other information that was printed incorrectly. So instead of just complaining about [the publication], tell us about it so we can fix it.

Similarly, the 2018 letter included the following:

Student reporters are in an interesting time to be studying journalism. But the discussion of fake news, pressure to get stories online quickly while remaining accurate and other calls to media only drive us to be more attentive to our work. Journalist Carl Bernstein popularly described reporting as working toward “the best attainable version of the truth.” That is what we are doing here at [publication] – the paper is not going to be perfect. You’ll likely find grammar errors or other problems, maybe even in this letter. The point is to continue seeking the truth and dispersing it.

Eight corrections ran during the 2005-2006 school year, all anchored in “Corrections” boxes in the Opinion section. Nine corrections ran during the 2018-2019 school year (not all were published before the current research was conducted and thus were not included in the analysis), and those corrections are all dated, anchored on a “Corrections” page, and appended to the articles.

Discussion

Corrections increase transparency and credibility (e.g., Nemeth and Sanders 2009; McBride 2019), but college newspapers rarely publish them (Hettinga, Clark, and Appelman 2016). To address this concern, this study explored trends in college newspaper corrections. In particular, it analyzed 50 years of corrections at a sample college newspaper and its website. Through thematic analysis, it found a strong influence of professional news outlets, as well as of the publication’s editors.

First, the study found a strong influence of correction style at professional news outlets. The standardization of corrections seemed to run alongside that of professional counterparts. The student newspaper’s era of unstandardized “requests for corrections” became more modern in the 1970s, which is around the time professional publications began standardizing their corrections practices as well (Silverman 2007). The student newspaper saw more labeling, identifying, and apologizing in the early 1990s. Their online correction practices were similar, as well; as with professional publications, the students’ corrections were appended to the online articles, rather than in a more anchored spot. This confirms Kopenhaver’s (2014) suggestion that “college student media have attempted to mirror their professional counterparts” (para. 1).

Second, researchers found that individual editors may influence the number of corrections published. Three specific calls for accuracy were found, and corrections that followed tended to be fairly standardized in terms of location and style. For this publication during this time frame, editors who made explicit commitments to corrections seemed to be more likely to print corrections during their tenure as editor. The number of corrections from year to year cannot be used as an explicit measure of transparency and accountability, because, as mentioned earlier, the number of corrections is not the same as number of errors. Years with fewer corrections could, indeed, mean years with more unreported errors, but they could also just mean years with fewer errors. It’s also difficult to say that the publication sometimes published “a lot” of corrections or sometimes just “a few” because it’s unclear what constitutes a “normal” number of corrections.

Additionally, it’s unclear from where the push was coming. Editors might have written these letters on their own, but they also might have been encouraged by others. Student newspapers have a turnover problem (Ascarelli, Huckins, and Collopy 2013), as discussed, and there are several elements in place to help maintain consistency, including: program coursework, publication handbooks, and faculty advisers. It could be that such letters committing to accuracy and the publication of corrections were written because teachers, handbooks, or advisers encouraged them to do so. In other words, the push for accuracy could be coming from the editors, but it also could be coming from these other factors.

It does seem, though, that for student news organizations seeking more credibility through a dedication to accuracy and transparency, this is likely a top-down directive. Because of the short tenure and constant turnover, there is the potential for greater inconsistency. Therefore, it may be that faculty advisers need to take a more proactive role in establishing the need for corrections, standardizing policy, and helping students adhere to these professional norms.

Limitations and Future Research

This research looked at only one student publication with a relatively short history, which could be seen as a limitation. However, the sample publication’s history is actually well-suited for this analysis; it includes corrections before and after the 1970s, which marked the professional shift in corrections. Also, as noted, case studies do serve a useful purpose for researchers in terms of obtaining context-dependent sources of knowledge (Flyvbjerg 2006, 22). That said, it could be helpful to conduct a future analysis with a different type of student newspaper. College newspapers differ in meaningful ways (e.g., budget, level of independence), so it could be that different models of oversight lead to different correction practices.

In reviewing the findings of the current research, editor notes supporting correction practices seemed to be correlated with the increased frequency of correction publication; however, a case study cannot support causation, nor can it shed light on the motivation behind changes in practice. A future study could explore student journalists’ motivations for running corrections, as well as whether the scope of the error affects that motivation.

Despite using multiple search terms, it is possible that not all published corrections were identified and gathered. Further, several years of the publication were missing from the archive, and some issues were lost in the online transition. There were, however, still trends found, even if the sample was incomplete. Additionally, many publications struggled with the online transition, so it would be difficult to find a publication without a similar gap. A future study could use different archival databases to find a more complete sample, which could further develop the trends and themes seen here.

Conclusion

In all, this research suggests that is possible for student newspapers to use corrections in a manner similar to professional publications; it seems to be contingent on the student staff. Through thematic analysis, it finds a shift from early “requests for corrections” to more “modern” corrections that included labels and apologies. It also found a strong influence of student editors, who occasionally published specific calls for transparency and accuracy. As student newspapers have significant turnover, this study recommends that messages about corrections and accuracy be shared by student media’s consistent forces: relevant classes, publication handbooks, and—perhaps most importantly—faculty advisers.


Alyssa Appelman Alyssa Appelman (Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University. Her research focuses on journalistic message credibility. Through a media psychology framework, she empirically tests the effects of journalistic norms and practices. Her work employs experimental analyses, as well as other quantitative methods. She teaches courses in journalism and mass communication.

Kirstie Hettinga

Kirstie Hettinga (Ph.D., The Pennsylvania State University) is an associate professor in the Communication Department at California Lutheran University. Her research addresses issues of accuracy and credibility in news media. She teaches media writing, editing, and content creation and serves as the faculty adviser to Cal Lutheran’s student newspaper, The Echo.


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[1] The name of the school and publication were removed for blind review.

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