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Vol. 25, No.1/Fall 2002

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By Michael Jesse

Congregation be seated. Our sermon for today is about ... Sin. Yes, friends, and not just any sin, but one that has taken deep root in our own news archives.

Brothers and sisters, you are news librarians and as such you are also journalists - just as photographers and graphic artists are journalists. Now, let me ask you, what is "sin" to a journalist? Who can tell me what sin is to a journalist? What's that, Brother Geiger? "Inaccuracy?" That is exactly it. Amen to that. Publishing an error. Misquoting someone. Spelling someone's name wrong. Those are sins to a journalist.

Is there a greater sin? How about ... publishing an error ON PURPOSE. To journalists, intentionally publishing a false statement is such a blasphemy that even when they write a correction they take pains not to repeat the error in the correction. You've heard them say it - "Don't repeat the error in the correction."

In fact, journalists feel so strongly about this that they can't stand to see those false words in print again (even in a correction) for fear that even one confused soul out there might glance at that page and not read the whole thing and just see that one phrase - and be corrupted. And if you don't believe me about this you just show this paragraph to your editor and he'll tell you the same thing.

But if that is so, then why is it that news librarians insist on correction policies in which known falsehoods are intentionally and willfully left in those stories - stories that are then sent to Nexis, Factiva and to the general public?

Now you're thinking, has the preacher gotten into the communion wine again? Doesn't he know this is what we've ALWAYS done, what we HAVE to do, what is RIGHT to do?

Well I say to you: you have been worshipping a false idol, and his name is ... What We Published. It is bad enough that the reporter made the error in the first place but at least he did it by mistake. But now you KNOW it is wrong and yet you leave it there unchanged - in perpetuity.

But oh Preacher, you say, we don't leave it "unchanged." We put the correction in the correction field. And look, we even use capital letters and a string of asterisks to call attention to it.

Yes, I've seen those little rows of asterisks. In fact, I don't doubt that if you could have a neon sign built into your text archive you'd have flashing red arrows pointing to your correction field. You do everything EXCEPT correct the error.

You say, Preacher, you know I surely would like to remove that vile, offensive error so that no one will be ensnared by its falseness ever again, but I just can't because it's ... it's ... What We Published! See how deep his evil tentacles have grown in you? You have come to value it above all else. Well I'm here to tell you, brothers and sisters, you do not have to kneel down and worship What We Published.

Two of the born-again are in our midst this morning and I want you all to have a good look at them. Stand up, Brother Jansson, stand up Sister Soto-Barra. Take a good look, congregation, because these two good souls have been reborn into the Church of the True Correction. Thank you both, you may be seated.

Now when you are born again in the Church of the True Correction, you realize that you can actually change the wording of an archived story in order to make it correct! Oh, I hear some gasps out there, congregation. I hear some gnashing of teeth, I do. Just listen, here's how it works.

When a correction runs in your paper that says, "John Smyth's last name was misspelled in yesterday's paper," you just call up that story and you change "Smith" to "Smyth" everywhere it appears in that story. Now, we're not trying to hide anything, so in the correction field we put something like "The original published version of this story misspelled Mr. Smyth's last name. It has been corrected for the archive."

Of course there are times when the correction is a little more complicated and you may have to consult with the writer or editor of the story. You explain to them - and this part is important - that this is not an opportunity to completely rewrite a story. You explain that you are making the SMALLEST CHANGE NECESSARY in order to result in the story being correct. And if, in order to accomplish that, you have to rewrite a whole sentence (using the wording in the published correction when possible), you make that fact clear in the correction field on the story, saying "The original published version of this story incorrectly described how the proposed tax would be assessed. A sentence has been rewritten for this archived version of the story to make it correct." And if you want you can also add "See microfilm for the original wording."

But that old sneaky false idol, that What We Published, he doesn't want you to hear the gospel of the Church of the True Correction. He whispers to you even now, doesn't he? He says, "Ooooooh, you can't change me because I am the 'Newspaper of Record.'"

But I say that he is a liar. Your microfilm is your Newspaper of Record, what you send in for copyright, which records for history exactly what your newspaper looked like that day, errors and all. Your online archive is the true final edition of your newspaper and should be corrected as such.

He whispers, "You can't change me because it will interfere with your copyright." But I say that it is well established in copyright law that a few small changes in a later edition of a work do not abrogate copyright.

He whispers to you, "But it would be wrong to change me. You'd be dishonest, making people think you never made that mistake. What about historians?"

But I say, it is not being dishonest if you make it clear in the correction field that you have made a slight change in order to correct an error - and Iím pretty sure that 99 percent of your users are ordinary people who just want accurate reporting. Of course, should any actual "historians" show up you can always direct them to the microfilm where they can study the error in all of its original glory.

He whispers, "But what if you make a mistake correcting a story? What if you can't figure out what part of the story needs to be changed to correct it?"

And I say, if YOU can't figure out what part of the story is incorrect, how the hell do you expect the reader to? That story is ALREADY wrong. The theoretical risk of making a mistake correcting it is hardly an excuse for not trying. All you have to do is consult with the writer and editor to clarify what part of the original story contained the incorrect wording, you fix it and you announce to the reader that you have done so.

He whispers, "but ... but ... this is how we've ALWAYS handled corrections!"

And I say, "Always? What is 'always?'" Most of you have only had online archives for about a decade. Before that you had clipping files and the only way you COULD handle corrections was to cut out the correction and tape it to the side of the clipping. When you acquired your first electronic archives you simply adopted the same method, perhaps not even considering the fact that you now had another option.

For the first several years of your electronic archives that might have been okay because the only people who had access to them were your newsroom staffs and other news librarians who searched stories on Nexis, Vutext and Dialog. And even THEN reporters were constantly repeating errors (somehow overlooking that pretty row of asterisks you were so proud of).

And now the world has changed again. Now we have the internet and it is not just the reporters seeing these stories now. It's everyone with internet access. Every time someone comes to your online archive and plunks down $2 to buy a story from your archive, you have republished that story - containing false information which you know is there and which you insist on leaving there.

Now friends, as Sister Semonche plays a hymn on the organ, I want you to close your eyes and ask yourself this question: who is being served by this outdated correction policy of yours? Is the Reader being served? Is the journalistic quest for Accuracy served? Or are you only serving What We Published? Think about it, brothers and sisters, and remember - the altar is always open here at the Church of the True Correction.

Michael Jesse is Library Director at The Indianapolis Star. You can contact him at


Last Updated: 11/22/02
Leigh Poitinger