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DEAR READER: When should we say an online article has been changed?

Friday, March 21, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 4:29 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dear Reader,

Five nights a week, the design desk “puts the paper to bed.” That is, the last page is sent, often in the final minutes before deadline, to the pressroom.

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But how do you put the news “to bed” when copy never sleeps?

The unfixed nature of editing on the Web allows for articles that constantly evolve. We can fix stuff. So publishing something “thatsays” instead of “that says” can be given its appropriate space after publication. Pronouns can be made to agree when original versions confuse “its” and “they.”

But when and how do we inform you of the change?

At the Missourian, the ground rules for changing copy are pretty simple for probably 90 percent of the cases:

  • An italicized correction appears atop an article for misspelled names, mistaken numbers or other significant facts.
  • New information gleaned after publication usually will have the word “update” added to the headline and an italicized note at the beginning. (This doesn’t happen always; there’s some inconsistency in application.)
  • Little fixes for grammar or typos, such as the examples above, get fixed with nary an alert.

What to do with the rest of the changes gets a little muddy.

A March 10 article about the state’s Pothole Patrol began with a scene on Clark Lane. I was suspicious. State roads generally aren’t called lanes, so maybe there was an error.  The next morning, a clause was added to a sentence in the article, saying Clark is “also known as state-maintained Route PP.”

Do you, dear reader, need or want a note at the top of the article stating that the change was made? (None was added.)

It’s a minor example in a major question of values. On the one hand, this newspaper has a commitment to be as transparent as possible about how the information you read is gathered, compiled and published. It’s the whole reason this regular letter to you began in 2005. It’s why I’m excited that you can now read original documents such as probable cause statements or official reports — you can read them and decide for yourself whether the journalists have adequately and accurately represented the material in their articles.

On the other hand, to what extent do you really need or want to know every change? When do all those explanations simply drive you away from an article that has actually been improved? And at what point does the explanation prompt more questions than answers?

“This story has been updated to better reflect the concerns of parents.” That’s the note on an article about overcrowding at Mill Creek Elementary School based on a meeting in which school officials discussed options. Parents at the meeting who read the article felt it didn’t describe their role adequately at the meeting, and the editor in charge of schools coverage agreed, so more information was added.

But doesn’t the note beg other questions? What concerns? Why weren’t they in the original article? Which parents? Do they represent all parents?

Consider changes made simply to improve imprecise language or clarify the writer’s intent. You could say these should be noted, perhaps with this sentence: “Changes were made for clarity.”

But all editing is done for clarity. Or should be.

A smart observation at a meeting this week: Editors tend to add a clarification note when there’s a complaint from outside the newsroom but just make the fix when one of the members of our own team notices it. While understandable — who likes to show their flaws? — that’s probably not a good reason.

A final option is to do nothing at all. In the print edition, you can’t go back. What’s published is chiseled in ink. I don’t particularly like that option, though, because you, the reader, deserve the best possible version of the article.

So I leave you with questions, not answers, and a request for your thoughts. I’ll be asking the Missourian Readers Board to weigh in, and a graduate student is researching guidelines at other newsrooms.

Oh, and I’ll add a comment at the bottom or a note at the top if I make any changes to this letter.

Until later,

Tom


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Comments

Skip Yates March 22, 2014 | 10:29 p.m.

What the Missourian is doing is just fine... no change needed.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 23, 2014 | 8:18 a.m.

I agree with Skip. I'd add we need to remember that sometimes attempts to improve spelling and grammar, if wrongly made, can change or confuse the meaning of the original article.

During my time in high school (Grover Cleveland was the sitting American president) English teachers LOVED to cite actual examples.

English is a difficult language, but some other modern languages are worse. At least English has an indefinite article ("the") and not this silly gender business, and English is pretty syntactical.

Consider some sayings in Pennsylvania Dutch (it's actually a form of German). One notorious one , LITERALLY translated into English, says, "Throw the cow over the fence some hay."

Don't know about you, Tom, but I'm physically not up to throwing cows over fences.

(Report Comment)

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