So, you messed up: 3 tips for handling corrrections

Another recent item in need of a correction,
from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans: http://imgur.com/KlyzZ

The mistaken reporting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ death may have you thinking that only big news organizations working in real time can make such mistakes.

But such wrongheaded errors are often not caused by deadline pressure and erroneous sources (nor are they found only in journalism, where today’s examples will come from).

The Iowa State Daily, the student newspaper, recently published a series on sexual assault, including story on when consent cannot be given. Unfortunately, the headline conveyed the opposite.

Bad mistake? You bet — right up there with TBD.com’s “sex with me” typo. But the error — and how the college paper handled it, offers media outlets — and marketers, companies and other online entities attempting content some sage guidance on controlling the damage and learning from it.

1. Don’t hide from the error.
This means not running a correction only in print, or running corrections in a dusty corner of the website, or whitewashing Web pages and Twitter feeds without telling readers what was changed and why. The Iowa State paper and TBD both ran prominent, detailed and apologetic corrections above the story, making it impossible to miss that there was a mistake and that it had been fixed.
On the Web, transparent corrections may also mean breaking the taboo of “not repeating the error.” In both cases (typos that went horribly wrong), a correction without noting the mistake can confuse more than clarify. Plus, it’s an honesty and integrity issue — rather than hide from your mistake, accept that you erred, as we all do, and say what it was.

2. Don’t delete the offending information — almost ever.
The Web is unlike print, joyously and dangerously, in that things can be deleted, erased from existence. The temptation, then, is for corrections to not be fixed, just gotten rid of. This applies to the practice of making changes without telling readers, but it also means simply erasing tweets, an entire article, picture, profile or website.
That’s not transparent, and although it’s self-censorship, it signals that you’re willing to censor content of any kind — including comments — if it embarrasses you or shows your flaws.
Some have argued that incorrect tweets have a long shelf life and must be erased. In certain cases, that may be legitimate. But as many of us have seen, most often, a taking down of a tweet is solely because it demonstrates being stupid — celebrities being notorious for this.¬†
The one possible exception, and even this must be carefully used: When the information is so misleading or so damagingly wrong that there is more to be lost by continued publication than by taking it down. Salon provides what is a difficult but plausible example in pulling a 5-year-old RFK Jr. story on the dangers of specific vaccines. The story has long since proven bogus, and Salon felt its continued presence was fueling the falsehoods.

3. Prevent it from happening again. This solution is the hardest for multiple reasons; a shortage of competent staffing imperils the fact-checking operation; deadline and competitive pressures triumph over cautiousness; and some mistakes are bound to happen occasionally.
Presumably, the Iowa State paper is examining its editorial workflow, its staffing and its editing procedures. TBD.com discussed transparency, for which it should be lauded, but failed — publicly, at least — to indicate that there will be any layers of editing added. But TBD isn’t like a daily paper — it’s breaking news. Readers of breaking news will understand that mistakes corrected by quick edits are par for the course.

But just as newspapers need editing before publication, so do non-journalistic online publishers. If you’re a corporation, marketer or personality getting into content, errors like those above will crush your credibility. As a content provider, you’re essentially an unknown, and thus a reader will need not notice many errors, much less big ones, before going elsewhere.

Lest you think copy editors (or line editors, etc.) are obsolete, Mashable’s hiring one. It’s presumably not the first copy-desk hire the site’s made, but it shows that Mashable gets the Web: Errors of deadline haste, quickly corrected, are permitted; errors of substance and sloppiness, showing a lack of care or consideration, will ruin you.