Endless quest for a fix at CNN

CNN’s broadcasts these days are packed with cheerleading for the network’s viewer participation opportunities. You’re encouraged to “share your story” at CNN iReport or “join a live chat” at Anderson Cooper’s blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network’s nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!

But what if you happen to notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?

Welcome to the jungle.

Back on October 28th, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. (Watch the CNN clip here.) A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know about bugs as they are filed.

Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn’t entirely surprising since the form’s auto-reply message says, “While we are unable to personally reply to every e-mail, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one.”

CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN Managing Editor Jay Kernis‘ email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is “dedicated to assisting our viewers.” After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, different from, though similar to, the one I’d used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. “We will look into,” @TeamCNN said.

After a couple more Twitter exchanges there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as being on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN’s website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network’s “Copyright Agent.” Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he’d look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.

As of this publication, CNN still hasn’t provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn’t much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?

Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there’s no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.

The point of slogging through this tale isn’t to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs’ recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We’ve had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the LA Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.

That means offering real accessibility — a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?

We’ve been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it’s pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).

And let’s take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS Media Shift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as part of the Report an Error Alliance.

[This post first appeared at PBS.org’s MediaShift Idea Lab.]

UPDATE 12/9/10: CNN has finally responded with a correction. Details here.

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