Contact information on a news site is certainly a matter of customer service. I’d argue that it’s also an essential form of community engagement. But what about journalism ethics? Is easy access to journalists a matter of ethics? I think so.
Whatever factors you think should motivate contact information, I hope you’ll agree with me that many news sites make it difficult to contact them. And nearly all should do a better job.
Before I make some recommendations and examine some news sites and report on how easy it is to find out how to contact someone in the newsroom, I’ll make the case that accessibility is a matter of ethics:
Correcting errors is one of the basics of journalism ethics, mentioned in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist and Radio Television Digital News Association Code of Ethics. We’ll correct more errors if we learn about more of our errors. And if we’re easy to reach, we’re going to be more likely to learn about our errors.
The New York Times study of the Jayson Blair case revealed that people who read his fabricated stories didn’t bother to contact the Times because they didn’t think anyone at the Times would care. As much as I believe in corrections and accuracy, I don’t bother to request corrections about every error published about news I’m involved in (and my most recent request was ignored anyway). I think news organizations need to invite access and requests for corrections, or they won’t become aware of many of their mistakes.
I think if you tried to reach many news organizations through their websites today, you might come to the same conclusion: that no one there cares. Readers and viewers shouldn’t have to work to call our errors to our attention.
I don’t see this as a matter where you must follow particular practices or you are being unethical, but a matter where the highest ethical standards call for easy accessibility. The SPJ Code of Ethics section on accountability calls on journalists to “Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct,” “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media” and “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” We can do all three of those more effectively and accountably if we help the public contact us more easily.
Here’s what I suggest as some best practices in accessibility:
On your home page
Your website should have a clearly marked link that says “contact us” or “about us,” easily visible on the home page and every section front or article page. I prefer “contact us,” but I’m fine with an “about us” page that either includes contact information or a link to the contact page. I’d rather see the link at the top of the home page than at the bottom. But I’d most prefer to see it at the top and bottom.
I’d like to see the words “contact us” somewhere on the home page. A step down in accessibility is when the “contact us” link is available from the home page, but invisible until you mouse over the right point on the navigation bar. For instance, most Digital First Media websites have “contact us” hidden under “tools” on the home page, as in the example here from the Denver Post home page. I should take some responsibility here. I used to work at DFM and, while I wasn’t involved in that design choice, I also never pushed to change it. When I see “tools,” I don’t think here’s where I contact the newsroom. I’d rather see “contact us” in the nav bar or somewhere else prominent on the page, without having to use my mouse to reveal it.
I’m also not a fan of contact links that are less clearly identified. “Customer service,” for instance, seems to invite complaints about newspaper delivery more than calls for corrections or suggestions of story ideas. But vaguely labeled links to the contact page are better than no link from the home page to the contact page.
I’d say if you have a clearly labeled “contact us” or “about us” link on the home page, that’s a sign that you invite and welcome interaction. If you have a vaguely labeled link or a “contact us” link that you need some exploration to find, you seem indifferent. If you don’t have a link to a contact page that’s reachable from your home page, I see that as a sign that you’re hostile to contact.
On the contact page
The best contact pages have at least six types of information about the newsroom (plus contact information for other departments):
- Specific names of all journalists, including descriptions of reporters’ beats. I prefer listing all journalists on staff, but I’d settle for all whose names appear on stories, as well as top executives and key managers. If you’d prefer not to list copy editors and designers or others who are generally unknown to the public, I’m not going to quarrel with that, though I prefer to list everyone. I like that the New Haven Register’s contact page includes a link to the full newsroom directory.
- Email addresses for each of those journalists. (Again, New Haven, another DFM newsroom, does a nice job in that newsroom directory.)
- Phone numbers for each of those journalists.
- Social media links for the journalists.
- Contact information for people interested in addressing a particular topic or type of news (local news, sports, opinion page, etc.).
- Snail mail address, for people who want to write an old-fashioned hard-copy letter.
- Physical address (if the snail-mail address is a PO box) for people who want to show up in person to raise their question or complaint.
While I’d like to see all that information right on the contact-us page, I’m fine, particularly in a larger newsroom, with a contact page that includes a link like the New Haven Register uses to a newsroom directory that has some or all of the information in items 1-5 above.
Whether the names are listed on the contact page or a newsroom directory, I like when the journalists’ names link to profile pages with the contact information as well as some professional and/or personal information about the journalist, including a photo. I also would include links to the journalist’s recent work. While I see contact information having an ethical dimension, I see the rest of the profile as a matter of community engagement and transparency. Again, I’m using my former newsrooms as examples here. The page about Omaha World-Herald columnist Erin Grace is an example of an engaging page about a staff member.
I hate it when the contact page is nothing more than a form to fill in that sends an email to some blind box such as “firstname.lastname@example.org.” I don’t think those forms give users any confidence that a real person is going to see their message and respond. My response rate from using contact forms is not good.
And turn off intrusive ads for your contact page. People trying to contact you shouldn’t have to close out page-takeover ads or answer questions you use to generate revenue from pages (as my friend Christoph Trappe had to):
On the story page
I’d like to see every story page include the following contact invitation/information:
- Email, phone number and social media links for the journalists whose work is represented (I would include contact information for the visual journalists, not just reporters).
- A specific invitation to readers/viewers to contact about corrections. I was pleased when the Register Citizen invited readers to “fact check” every story. I wish the practice had spread across the company and am disappointed that it’s no longer offered even at the Register Citizen.
Responding to contacts
Most of your contacts might have nothing to do with ethical matters such as accuracy and corrections. You’ll get email from people with political agendas who perceive something you wrote as irredeemably liberal or conservative. You’ll get customer-service inquiries that you’ll need to forward to the appropriate colleagues. But you need a protocol for responding to inquiries relating to accuracy:
- Reporters or visual journalists should never respond unilaterally to requests for corrections without informing editors, whether that request comes by email, phone, in person, social media or some other channel. This should always be a collaborative response.
- Decide how you should respond initially to a request for a correction or an inquiry about accuracy. I suggest that if the reporter or visual journalist responsible for the content in question receives the inquiry, the initial response should be a message from that journalist, carboning an editor, thanking the person and promising to investigate and determine whether a correction is in order. If an editor receives the message, the response should carbon the journalist responsible for the content in question. The message should not presume that the criticism is right or wrong, but should invite the reader/viewer to provide any links or other documentation that might help in your investigation.
- The reporter should provide documentation to the editor and the editor should investigate whether the original content was accurate.
- If you made an error, you should correct it, noting the correction at the top of the online version, if it is a significant error. Errors such as typos, which don’t change the meaning of the passage, can be fixed in the story and noted at the end of the story. One way or another, archived versions of a story should note that they have been corrected. I suggest using
strikethroughto note words that have been removed, unless they were defamatory, in which case they should be removed entirely.
News site contact information
I review how some of the news sites I formerly worked for and with provide contact information (so maybe I deserve some blame for any shortcomings):
Denver Post: “Contact us” page, accessed from home-page “tools” tab in navigation bar above, includes a general email address and phone number for the newsroom and contact information for executives, including Editor Greg Moore, newsroom department heads and a newsroom directory. It doesn’t include specific information on requesting corrections.
New Haven Register: The Register has contact information but doesn’t specifically say how to request corrections. The newsroom staff directory, as noted above, includes a page for each staff member. Information varies by staff member, with some combination of email, phone number, photo and links for following on social media.
Cedar Rapids Gazette: The Gazette’s contact page is linked at the top of the home page, right under the paper’s name. But when you click on it, you have to answer a survey to continue (it’s the site Christoph Trappe was criticizing above). Presuming you answer the questions, the page itself is not very helpful. It provides a newsroom staff directory with emails and phone numbers and an invitation to “contact the online content team” by filling in an email form. While I don’t like the intrusive survey on a contact page, I do like the Gazette’s invitation to request corrections:
Des Moines Register: If the Register has a link to its contact page at the top of its cluttered home page, I couldn’t find it. On the right rail, I found a bunch of links under “Help,” but mostly advertising and circulation information. One link, though, did connect to a staff directory. If you scroll to the bottom of a very deep page, under “Services,” “executive contacts” and “newsroom contacts” take you to pages with extensive contact information, including photos. I could not find an invitation to request corrections (please point it out if I’ve missed it).
Omaha World-Herald: Omaha.com has a “contact-us” link right at the top of the home page. While the contact page doesn’t offer a specific invitation to request corrections, it has links to top editors and a full newsroom staff directory, which presents links to newsroom departments. If you’re searching for a particular staff member, you would need to know whether she belonged to the news department, online or living/entertainment, for instance. Each directory provides links to pages on individual staff members, and there you get email and phone contacts as well as photos, social media links and brief profiles of staff members. On story pages, contact information was offered at the end of stories.
You know, newspapers sure do make it difficult for people to give us info or contact us. It’s like a telephone tree of email addresses.
— Adam Gerik (@ofadam) March 25, 2015
Dean Jerry Ceppos 0f LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication (my boss) asked his ethics class last year to study news site contact information. Here’s his report, with light editing from me (mostly formatting the students’ findings as bullets):
I asked my media-ethics class to evaluate a favorite website from an ethical point of view. Among the values they should look for, I told them, was the ease of figuring out who runs the place and how to reach those people because I consider that an ethical issue. These are some of the results. It turns out that mainstream sites and alternative sites have more in common than we thought: Many of both failed the test.
Here are some of the results, not listing the name of the site because I haven’t checked each result.
Among mainstream sites, the students observed:
- A local TV station’s site “takes going through many different layers of the website before you actually see who is director of digital media.”
- For a newspaper site, a student observed, “Under the Help section, a form is available. This allows readers to send messages….though it does not say…who receives them.”
- A major sports site “does a stellar job of giving its readers easy access to express their opinion and talk about the stories on their website but does not present a way to contact the actual (website) team.”
- On the site of a very large national magazine, “the user has to scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the contact button. It shouldn’t be this difficult to contact the operators of the site, and with the contact button buried below all of the content, it makes it hard for users to do so. Once the contact button is clicked, things get even more difficult. Actual editors aren’t listed–instead the user must email the department as a whole. This seems like it would merit very little chance of actually getting a response to a comment or question. … Also, contacts for writers aren’t added to stories.”
- Another large site does graciously list hundreds of staff members by name—without a single link, phone number or physical address.
It’s much the same with alternative sites:
- One big entertainment site identifies the owner of the company but there is no physical address or phone number (an email address IS provided).
- A media-ethics site provides photos and names of contributors but no contact information.
- At a politics site, a tab is designated for contact information but no names are listed.
- At another large news and entertainment site, “there are clear links on how to contact the correct department, (but) there is not a way to directly contact a certain person, such as a manager or the editor-in-chief. Therefore, if one wants to contact a reporter, he or she must first email the department. Furthermore, email is the only way to communicate. … The website does not provide a phone number.”
- A nifty site that summarizes stories has little information about authors or editors. “It appears that (the site) was founded by two girls in their 20s who had previous experience working for NBC in Washington,” the student wrote. “However, that is the only information we get about them and their team on the main website. The About Us section doesn’t even include their names. It is nice to see the history of the company but … it is better to know the face behind the operation. … If an issue were to arise where a reader would like to talk to someone who researched a particular story … I’m not sure they would have much luck.”
One interesting exercise is to compare the above results with print publications—and I’m not sure there’s much difference. Every masthead and postage box (or whatever they’re called) lists names and perhaps a mailing address, but many list little more. Of course, it’s even easier online —through links and the fact that space is unlimited— to communicate such information than it is in print.
How do you contact news orgs?
If you know of a news site with helpful contact information (or want to boast about your own site’s accessibility), please share it in the comments. Or if you have a frustrating or encouraging experience trying to contact a news organization, please share that.
Or, if you think this is just a matter of customer service and community engagement, not an actual matter of journalism ethics, I’d welcome that argument.