On Corrections: Why fixing the rough draft of history matters

Last week, Slate published my article on a recent executive order on open data issued by President Obama. Unfortunately, it contained an error, which has since been corrected.
After an alert reader commented on the article, I responded with a clarification of the history. That didn’t address the integrity of the article itself, however, and since the editors had heard from another reader, I sent in a correction.
Unfortunately, I elided a rich and compelling history into a few short sentences and apologize for any misunderstanding that readers of the syndicated version may take away. I regret the error.
I ran the correction by Craig Silverman, of Poynter’s excellent “Regret the Error” blog, who generally gave high marks to the approach taken here and suggested that I tweet it out. (Done.)
For those interested in the backstory and some thoughts on corrections, read on.
Originally, the piece suggested that President John Quincy Adams agreed with Naval Observatory Superintendant Matthew Fontaine Maury about the importance of collecting and publishing astronomical data and implied that that the Naval Observatory was endowed after the publication of Maury’s book, in 1955.
Searching on the road, I found some useful history on John Quincy Adams, the Smithsonian bequest and the founding Naval Observatory. (Thank you, Google!) Here’s the correction I sent in:
While Adams signed a bill to create a national observatory before leaving office in 1829, it wasn’t until 1830 that a “Depot of Charts and Instruments” was created by the Secretary of the Navy. This eventually became the U.S. Naval Observatory, a decade later.
The institution was funded by Congress 1842, in no small part due to the efforts of President John Quincy Adams, who served for nearly two decades in Congress after he left the White House. Adams was perhaps the Naval Observatory’s strongest contemporary political supporter and spent considerable time there with Maury, looking up at the stars.
So, that’s the history, replete with interesting details (a former president …serving in Congress! Funding scientific research and infrastructure in the 19th century!) and retrieved from the side of the road using a mobile device and network that I imagine both Maury and Adams would marvel at on many levels.
If it seems like I’m taking extra time on this, understand that it’s because I believe corrections really matter. I’ve written thousands of articles and tens of thousands of tweets over the past 7 years, the vast majority of which haven’t needed to be fixed.
Whenever there has been an error of fact, omission, broken links or misattribution, I’ve been deeply grateful for alert readers who let me know via email, phone, tweets and comments about the issue. Online communities that care enough about the source material to comment are valuable, both on their own and to me.
I don’t like being wrong and, candidly, experience embarrassment or even shame when I err. When I do make mistakes — and it’s inevitable that it will happen — I appreciate hearing about error from the networks of people in my life and am glad to fix it. I hope that doing so builds trust, particularly at a time our faith in institutions of all sorts is at historic lows.
Please keep those corrections coming.

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Filed under government 2.0, journalism

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