Journalism, as everyone appreciates, is a fallible thing. When news is gathered at speed to meet the demands of 24/7 publishing there are inevitably some spills along the way. News organisations should be open about them, which is why the Guardian publishes a daily Corrections and clarifications column and why it has a policy of not scrubbing (invisibly mending) web stories.

When things go wrong, corrections go a long way towards putting matters right and they are an effective form of redress. But sometimes a story has an unusually strong ripple effect and a correction may not make nearly the same splash. What more might a publisher reasonably be expected to do to draw attention to the fact that an article was flawed in those cases?

Readers may have seen a lengthy correction in Saturday's edition about a story that appeared on 7 January with the headline: "Church grabs chance to attack birth control pill." The story made the mistake of saying that Professor Carl Djerassi blamed the pill for falling birth rates in an article he wrote for an Austrian newspaper. It was an unfortunate and serious error because he is one of the pill's inventors.

There was nothing wrong with reporting that Roman Catholic leaders had attacked the pill or that one of them had referred to Professor Djerassi's piece in Der Standard. But the Guardian's claim that he introduced the pill into his discussion about population imbalance was wrong. His article didn't mention the pill, or contraception. It said that since Austria has an average of 1.4 children in each family, its population will shrink unless people decide to have more children or immigration increases.

The two separate strands of discussion about birth rates and the pill were wound together before the Guardian story appeared: in December, a few days after the Der Standard piece, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn quoted Professor Djerassi's remarks on Austrian TV and said that the Vatican's condemnation of artificial contraception 40 years ago was "prophetic".

Two journalists worked on the Guardian article - one was in Rome, the other in Berlin. The Berlin reporter covered Professor Djerassi's piece in Der Standard and Cardinal Schönborn's comments on Austrian TV, while the journalist in Rome filed the Vatican elements of the story. At the beginning of January a piece in the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, claimed that the pill worked with "an abortive effect" and impaired male fertility by releasing hormones into the environment. The Guardian journalists saw this as part of a wider attack against the pill by the Vatican that started with Professor Djerassi's article.

The Berlin reporter told me that she read reports in the German press linking Professor Djerassi's comments in Der Standard to the pill and listened to Cardinal Schönborn's broadcast online. She read Professor Djerassi's article before she wrote her contribution, she said, but perhaps because she was working at speed and had the German reports in mind, she misinterpreted his position and reported that he had made a link between population imbalance and the pill. "I was expecting to see it," she said. "I didn't read closely enough." When Professor Djerassi complained last week she re-read his article and realised her error.

An article about falling birth rates, written by one of the inventors of the pill, was likely to attract attention, especially from people opposed to contraception. A story that he condemned his own invention was bound to make an even bigger splash, and it was replicated on dozens of websites. The mistake was serious enough for the article to be deleted from the Guardian's site.

The Guardian's ability to deal with the ripple effect of a story like this is limited, because it has no control over web publishers who replicate its stories without consent. What more can be done? In this case, in addition to the substantial correction published in print and online, Professor Djerassi has been offered a Response column, which will appear in the paper and on the Guardian website. The attention given to the error in this column may also help to set the record straight further afield.