A System of Self-Correction: A.M. Rosenthal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Press Criticism and the Birth of the Contemporary Newspaper Correction in the New York Times

By Lerner, Kevin M. | Journalism History, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

A System of Self-Correction: A.M. Rosenthal, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Press Criticism and the Birth of the Contemporary Newspaper Correction in the New York Times


Lerner, Kevin M., Journalism History


Even to many serious consumers of the news, the newspaper correction must feel like an institution, something as old and as consistent as the funny pages, or coverage of baseball. But even though corrections boxes now seem essential to the credibility of a newspaper, the fixed corrections box, under a standing headline, has been a fixture only since the early 1970s, arising in the midst of a broader ethics and accountability movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While The New York Times may not have been first to establish a corrections box, it was the first national newspaper to do so, and as the "paper of record," was influential in modeling the practice for smaller dailies nationwide.1 Regardless of whether the Times was first, its editorial policy changes were widely noted and widely copied in the newspaper industry. Relying in part on the archived papers of then-managing editor Abraham M. Rosenthal and on interviews with contemporary journalists, this article traces the history of the newspaper corrections box in The New York Times, which was already an influential national newspaper by this time, and examines the outside critical voices that compelled the paper to burnish its credibility with this acknowledgement of its own errors. In that way, this is a case study in the effects of press criticism and its influence on institutional change in news organizations as much as it is a study of corrections policies at newspapers. The article also corrects and fills in details of the historical record on how the Times came to establish its corrections box, telling the full story based primarily on archival documents from the files of the paper.

A1986 study of corrections policies at twelve newspapers observed, "The literature on newspaper corrections systems is remarkably sparse.'" In part, this was because corrections policies themselves were so new. Before this period, most newspapers used corrections as filler, printing them in tiny type at the end of columns. They were haphazard, and their use was usually determined by the dictates of space and the whims of department editors and copy editors. As the writer Craig Silverman, a popular expert on corrections, put it:

At the time, the Times, like many other publications in North America, ran its corrections throughout the paper. They would appear in every section, in different places, written in different ways, and often under different headings. If you read the initial error, the chances of your happening upon the correction were slim. It was accuracy roulette.3

A 1973 study by the American Newspaper Publishers Association found that nine out of thirty-eight large newspapers (defined as having a circulation of more than 100,000) used a standing head for corrections as one of their systems of accountability, demonstrating that the practice had begun to spread. Of the 135 papers surveyed over all though, only seventeen had instituted a corrections box or section, so more than half of the papers that regularly ran corrections fell into the largest circulation category.4

By the 1980s however, the practice of consolidating each day's batch of corrections in a single, predictable location had become commonplace enough that researchers began to examine newspapers' policies, though the authors of a 1983 study still called the corrections box "a new approach to journalistic admissions of error."5 That study looked at the Times and The Washington Post and found that relatively few mistakes were being corrected, despite new corrections policies, and that most of the corrections were of objective errors, such as misspelled names or incorrect dates, not of more subjective errors of interpretation, fairness, or judgment.

Three years later, in 1986, the erroneous idea had come into being that corrections had always been a part of a responsible newspaper's system for maintaining the trust of its readers. Thomas Winship, a former editor of The Boston Globe, said "that nothing is more crucial to a news organization than its reputation for accuracy, and that nothing is more crucial to establishing this reputation than the honest, timely and public admission of errors," according to a Gannett Center study of corrections. …

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