In July 1997, Frank Sennett, then-managing editor of the alternative Chicago weekly NewCity noticed that his rivals at the Chicago Tribune printed an article about accused serial killer Andrew Cunanan, erroneously stating that Cunanan was the father of a teenage daughter.
The paper ran a correction nine days later, explaining that the information was "provided by a federal fugitive task force hunting Cunanan." By then, the error had been picked up and spread around the world by the German Press Agency (DPA).
Sennett was curious, and he tried to find out what went wrong by interviewing all the reporters on the story, only to run into a brick wall when one of them said he was told by his editor not to talk.
"I really started thinking about how, if journalists ever expect regular folks to trust them and agree to be story sources, they need to come clean about their mistakes and make every effort to explain them and air them out in the open," Sennett said via e-mail. "The Slipup idea grew from there."
This February, Sennett launched Slipup.com by posting the weirdest "correction of the day" he could find, in an attempt to focus attention on online news organizations' corrections policies -- and lack thereof.
"It's a medium in gestation and there aren't accepted standards for many journalism issues online," said Sennett.
"I love journalism, and saw a small area where I might be able to help make some positive impact. The erosion of confidence in the news media affects all of us in the industry, and I thought it was time to do my small part to improve our product."
The spare site, which Sennett works on for only 30 minutes a day, consists of each day's correction, plus links to the corrections pages of nearly two dozen news organizations, such as The Associated Press, the Washington Post, Wired News and Brill's Content.
Sennett uses a little humorous needling to goad online editors into avoiding the Internet temptation of rewriting erroneous history with the flick of a mouse.
"It might seem a bit distasteful to call for online pubs to post their corrections and then, in effect, punish them when they do by posting the goofiest and most serious errors," he said. "But in order to get people to keep coming back, and to get more people to think about the issue, that's the sizzle I use to sell the ethics steak."
Slipup also links to a November study published by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, showing that 78 percent of readers who remember seeing a correction "felt better" about the quality of coverage they receive.
"I want to stress that I've made mistakes as both a writer and an editor, and it's sometimes painful to see them in print," Sennett said. "But it's a lot less painful than hiding the truth and subverting one of the bedrock principles of journalism… That said, I'd probably be personally bummed if I made some terrible error and some chump put the correction online next to a dog with a wagging tail. So, my apologies to all offended parties."
Newspaper corrections are no longer the stuff of page-two editors and cranky librarians. The Internet, with its speed and ease of transmission, has complicated the concept of corrections exponentially, posing new questions that do not yet have standardized answers.
Questions such as: Should sites have a stand-alone corrections page? If so, how long should corrections stay posted? Should sites publish a correction if they fix an error in three minutes? How about three months? Should corrections go directly on online articles? Should "revised" be noted?
And: Should sites maintain corrections in their archives? Should online archives be maintained by the print-archives librarians? Are sites legally liable for errors that are picked up and distributed by newswires or search engines before they are corrected?
The answers to these questions vary wildly, as Riverside Press-Enterprise Editorial Library Director Jackie Chamberlain has found. Early last year, Chamberlain asked librarians from 21 daily newspapers how corrections were being handled in online databases. She discovered that "libraries rarely have anything to do with them… And Web types -- especially if they don't have a journalism or news library background -- either don't understand or don't care."
Chamberlain's survey confirmed her conclusions when she first studied the subject in mid-1997: "There are no standards for identifying, correcting and editing the errors in newspaper Web editions."
Bruce Oakley, online editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who collaborates with Chamberlain in the Database Quality Control Program, has established a corrections policy with an eye fixed firmly on maintaining a clean archive.
Arkansas Online corrects "as soon as possible online in three different areas," Oakley said via e-mail.
Corrections are made in the section where the mistake appeared, in red type next to the fixed item in the article itself and in the top and bottom of the modified file. There is no stand-alone corrections section. The articles and PDF format archive files are available online for seven days; if an error is discovered three months later, a correction is still run in the section, and a line is entered into a log of corrections stored next to the PDFs.
The three-prong corrections method may be especially effective as media cyberlaw is still evolving.
"So far, electronic items are basically held to the same liability standards as print articles -- a good faith effort to correct as soon as the error is recognized is considered sufficient to protect from liability," Oakley said.
"There has also been some legal consideration of whether leaving errors in correctable places may not be considered negligent."
Slipup's Sennett praises the corrections policies of the Washington Post ("great job"), CBS Marketwatch ("awesome policy") and the Chicago Tribune ("ironically enough").
MarketWatch corrects "any material errors... as quickly as we can after we spot them" on a stand-alone corrections page that is heavily linked throughout the site, said MarketWatch Managing Editor Tom Murphy. The blunders stay up for two weeks, and mistakes discovered long after the fact elicit a new correction and a fix to the archives.
The Chicago Tribune runs a daily corrections list, and if the article is available on its Web site, it is corrected with a note at the top and near the correction explaining the new change, said Tribune Interactive Media Director Owen Youngman.
Further, "every error leads to a form being filled out and reviewed by everyone who touched the error in question," Youngman said. "So overall we have a culture of seeking out errors, and in fact we have a goal each year of increasing the percentage of published errors that we catch ourselves, rather than waiting for the public to call us on it."
For an example of a bad corrections policy, Sennett points at USA Today's site. "It's as if they've never made a mistake," he said.
The general lack of online corrections, Sennett said, is likely due to "a lack of editorial resources and the fact that it's a developing medium."
Another reason, he said, why the time to change is now.
"Look, if Matt Drudge can regularly come clean about his errors, can the rest of the media do any less?"