When a listener heard an NPR story that her condo building had signed a deal to rent out a wall for a billboard to pay for maintenance needs, she was shocked.
The story used Marcia Cohen-Zakai's Miami condo as an example of how the rise in condo foreclosures can trigger a rise in monthly fees for condo neighbors which in turn can fuel more foreclosures. At the time of the May story, 40 percent of her condo residents were behind in fees.
At the end of the six-minute piece, NPR correspondent Greg Allen said, "And to help cover the shortfall, the owners of these luxury condos are doing something that just a few years ago, they wouldn't have considered. They've signed a deal to rent out one side of their building as space for a billboard."
Cohen-Zakai has been an owner for five years. She rarely misses a meeting because what the condo board does affects her home. She knew she hadn't signed any such deal.
"This is a significant error of fact," Cohen-Zakai wrote me in a letter a few weeks after the story aired. "As one of the owners of the Venetia Condo I can say with certainty that we have not signed, approved, voted or consented to any such deal. I hope that you will appreciate the importance of correcting Mr. Allen's error of fact during these hard condo times, when the facts are especially crucial."
Shortly after hearing the story, she said she tried to get NPR to run a correction. But all she got was frustration.
She contacted All Things Considered, where the story aired on May 6. She emailed firstname.lastname@example.org. She left a message on ATC's hotline. And she called, emailed and then sent a letter to the Ombudsman's office. "I do believe in NPR's high standards and I wasn't going to give up," she said.
No one from the editorial staff responded.
After Allen got her complaint he checked with his sources at the condo association. "They had not decided yet whether to submit the billboard deal to the full condo association," Allen told my office. "But the board members had indeed signed it. It's a done deal they assured me." But he never got back to Cohen-Zakai.
Cohen-Zakai's experience illustrates that, until very recently, NPR apparently did not take seriously its responsibility to make sure that mistakes, once found and proven, are dealt with promptly. From June 3 through 29, for example, there were no corrections listed at NPR's correction page.
As most news pros would concede, that's an infallibility average so far above normal as to strain credibility. This is no less true for NPR, which reports and produces fresh news around the clock, every day of the year. But a responsible news organization needs to publicly acknowledge and promptly correct its mistakes to help maintain credibility and trust.
NPR's policy is that all corrections and clarifications are to be shown on NPR's corrections Webpage.
My office did a study of the number of corrections on NPR's three news magazines — Morning Edition,Day to Day and All Things Considered between Jan. 1 and June 30 and found that Morning Edition, for example, ran six corrections and six clarifications on air during the six-month period studied— not one of which was put on NPR's corrections Webpage. On the Webpage, however, Morning Edition listed four different mistakes, not one of which was acknowledged on air.
All that has changed. At the beginning of July, Ellen Weiss, NPR's Vice President for News, issued a new corrections policy to better identify and correct mistakes in broadcasts and on the Web. Weiss has introduced a systematic way to handle corrections, putting veteran editor Jonathan Kern in charge.
"The ultimate goal is to be both more accountable for our coverage and more transparent with our audience," said Weiss.
And the numbers so far show the policy is working.
In all of 2006 and 2007, there were 34 corrections on NPR's corrections page. In July 2008 alone, NPR issued 33 corrections.
Some mistakes appear to be simply memory gremlins, such as when ATC host Melissa Block mistakenly said that Sodom was spared in the Book of Genesis, when it was not. Others are more serious, such as when NPR rolled out a short feature that turned out to be two years old. Or when a reporter misidentified which major bank posted an earning success at a time when most banks were posting record losses. I imagine Wells Fargo, which had done well in July, was not pleased to hear NPR give Wachovia the accolade instead.
But now the network is posting all its corrections and clarifications in a central place on the Web. NPR also is appending a correction to the Webpage for the relevant story and adding it to the written segment transcript, which is available for purchase.
Kern reads every email that comes into the corrections box, an average of about 75 a day. Many deal with mispronunciations, bad grammar or allegations of political bias. Often people think they heard something on NPR, and Kern will investigate only to find that the person is not correct.
Most of the emails are not asking for factual corrections.
"They are opinions ('Your programs are not balanced, or are dull, etc.'), or issues of grammar ('Your reporter just said 'between he and I!"), or have to do with non-NPR programs (shows we distribute but don't produce, or local programs)," said Kern in an email. "Many mention points they wish had been included in a story (and I forward these to the reporter), or suggest OTHER stories we might do. Once we winnow all those out, we get about a dozen that I actually look into."
Of those dozen or so questions about factual accuracy, between one and four warrant a correction.
"Most reporters and editors have been very happy to admit their mistakes, especially if they're obvious ones like getting a number wrong, or misspelling a name or making a claim that can't be justified," said Kern in an email. "For what it's worth, a lot of the errors that we correct are statements of interviewees. But we acknowledge responsibility for all of them by saying 'we' made the error — whether it was made by a guest, a reporter, an editor, or a producer."
Journalists need to be accountable to their listeners, readers and viewers. One of the best and most effective ways to do that is to admit mistakes and promptly correct them. After years of paying lip service to this concept, NPR now appears to be taking it seriously.
Shortly after the new policy was in place, I forwarded Cohen-Zakai's request for a correction, and it was taken care of within an hour. The correction, posted on July 29, said that while the Miami condo board had signed the billboard agreement, "it was not ratified by other condo owners."