There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

The Only Way Is Ethics: But it's still good to receive praise

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The Independent Online

With a few days to go, the final reckoning is still to be had. But analysing the complaints received from readers during the course of 2014 so far, some things are already clear.

The first is that there have been more of them than in the previous year. Is that a bad thing? On the whole I would say not. Perhaps I’d be expected to reach that conclusion. But there is no particular evidence that the increased use of our complaints and feedback mechanism is in response to an equal and opposite decline in editorial standards.

There are, indeed, several more likely explanations. The first is that The Independent has vastly increased its readership, with our online audience having grown by around 80 per cent year on year to more than 50 million individuals per month. Put simply, the more eyes that see any given article or image, the more likely that one pair will find something to feel annoyed about. The global nature of the audience also increases the potential for a cultural sensitivity to be unwittingly tweaked.

The rise in traffic to our website has been mirrored by an expansion of the digital operation inside our newsroom. There is significantly more material being produced for the site than there was 12 months ago. Once again, the more content we have, the greater are the chances that somebody will stumble over an item with which they take issue.

Both these points tie in to the fact that our complaints system is based around an online submission process. The internet reader is only ever two clicks between the cause of their concern and the means of expressing it. Nonetheless, accessibility and transparency are vital to any regulatory structure, particularly a self- regulatory one, so that ease of use is key.

The fact that we now refer explicitly to our commitment to high standards in every edition of The Independent, and the introduction of a regular slot for corrections have also, I hope, made it plainer how we want to engage with readers who feel we have erred.

The Independent and its sister titles remain, for the time being, outside the broader industry system of regulation overseen by Ipso, successor to the Press Complaints Commission. It is too early to say for sure whether that has had a significant impact on the number and type of complaints we receive directly. Anecdotally, I would observe that any effect has been minimal.

It’s always good to receive praise

So what raised readers’ ire in 2014? There are no great surprises. Inaccuracies lead the way: most small but some substantive – and we are enormously grateful to have them pointed out so they can be corrected. Mis-spelling “Islamophobia” throughout an article about Islamophobia was bad enough. Publishing an obituary pre-mortem was rather worse.

Next come disagreements with columnists for their perceived biases, or – in one case – their lack of knowledge about flat green bowls (in which bias is a prerequisite).

Matters of personal taste fall into third place. Religion, feminism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and computer games are all subjects on which it is almost impossible to write without offending someone.

We do, of course, do our best to get things right. Sure enough, from time to time a submission falls into my inbox which is neither complaint nor criticism but is a note of thanks – even praise. These anti-complaints are most welcome. I look forward to an increase for 2015.

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