Posts about corrections

I confess a journalistic sin

I just got off the phone with Bob Garfield of On the Media talking about the shooting in Connecticut and the discussion that ensued on Twitter around an account alleged to be that of the shooter. He called me because I screwed up — and particularly because I am a journalist and journalism professor who screwed up.

After the shooting, I followed the trail of many on Twitter to an account that was written by a person of the same name that had been broadcast on TV news as that of the shooter. It was eerie reading and I said just that. I did not use the name of the person or the name of the account because I knew better: these facts could change. But then I also foolishly did not include a conditional statement in my tweet: I did not say “if this is the account of the killer, then…” Or I did not say this was the “alleged” or “reputed” account of the person named as the killer. These are basic, basic journalistic skills drilled until they are reflexes and I would use them in any story for print. I didn’t use them online. That was wrong. We don’t learn these things as journalists just to cover ourselves or to sound like journalists. We learn them because the key skill of the journalist is to say what we do *not* know and to make that clear. That is the essence of credibility.

I immediately tweeted that I should have added the conditional statement. I then erased the single tweet, which I hate doing because one should not try to eliminate the record. But on Twitter, there is no way to amend or correct a tweet — a fundamental structural problem, I think, but I’m not shifting blame to Twitter — and so it could continue to be retweeted and passed around.

As you know by now, it soon was reported that the original name was wrong. A person by that name was being questioned and his brother was identified in the press as the killer. Though as I write this, the police have still not verified either. So caveats still apply. And I am not using the names still.

Also, as this proceeded, the Twitter account associated with the first name got new tweets. That is apparent evidence that it was the wrong account. But even that is not foolproof as one can send delayed tweets. So nothing is certain. That is the important lesson.

Bob Garfield wanted me to shrug and say oops — such is news. I wouldn’t do that. Yes, this is news and we’ve all — not just journalists but also everyone who ever watches a breaking story on TV and now on the net — learned that facts change. But it was wrong. Bob also wanted me to blame haste. But I wouldn’t do that, either, for by that argument, one would need to wait hours, days, weeks, or even longer before reporting any facts and clearly that’s not going to happen.

No, we always need to be as diligent as possible about verifying facts — and listening to TV news, I’ve learned, is not sufficient. That includes now not just journalists but those who spread what they hear from journalists via Twitter, Facebook, et al. We need to be careful about saying what we don’t know or how we know what we’re saying. Those attributions and caveats are important. I left them out of my tweet. That was wrong, especially for me. I am sharing this here both to share the lesson. I’m sorry.

: LATER: Looking at Twitter reaction, I want to be clear that I’m not blaming Twitter’s length; I could have fit an attribution and caveat in the tweet.

Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again…

Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error, the terrific blog chronicling uh-oh moments in news, now has a book of the same title coming out imminently and on the book’s site, he’s already posting errors and corrections readers have sent him. Goose, gander. The book is wonderful and important and I recommend it highly.

I was honored to be asked to write the foreword (and was extra delighted to get cover billing). Here are a few snippets of what I said:

* * *

Nobody’s perfect – not even journalists . . . especially not journalists.

Reporters and editors make mistakes. Indeed, they are probably more likely than most to do so. For just as bartenders break more glass because they handle more beer, so journalists who traffic in facts are bound to drop some along the way. . . .

It is time for journalists to trade in their hubris and recapture their humanity and humility. And the best way to do that is simply to admit: We make mistakes.

Craig Silverman’s examination of the art of the correction in his blog and now this book could not come at a better time for journalism. For the public’s trust in news organizations is falling about as fast as their revenues (and, yes, those may be related). One way to earn back that trust is to face honestly and directly the trade’s faults. The more – and more quickly – that news organizations admit and correct their mistakes, prominently and forthrightly, the less their detractors will have grounds to grumble about them.

But for journalists, to admit mistakes is to expose failure; corrections, in this logic, diminish stature and authority rather than enhance them. In my experience, some reporters and editors have tended to think that if they just ignored a mistake for long enough, it – or at least its memory and stench – would fade away.

But now that journalists’ readers and sources can be heard via their personal printing presses on the web, it is no longer possible to ignore errors or, worse, to hide them. . . .

But this discussion should be about so much more than just errors and corrections. This is about new and better ways to gather, share, and verify news. And it is about a radically different and improved relationship between journalists and the public they serve. These changes in the culture and practice of journalism will not just bolster journalism’s reputation but expand its reach and impact in society.

Still, this starts with the error. For it is in the error and the correction that the public has been let into the news to improve it. That – and the rare letter to the editor that makes print – had been the only chinks in the castle walls around journalism. But now, thanks to the internet, the public and journalists can do so much more together. The correction is only the beginning of a long list of new means of collaboration. . . .

News is a process. It is a process of trying to get ever closer to truth, to find more facts now with more hands, to see the story through the perspectives of more eyes, to fill in the voids and find the shape of news together. . . .

In the end, this is about instilling an ethic of transparency – even about our fallibility and foibles – in journalism, professional and amateur. It is about being unafraid to speak in our imperfect human voice instead of hiding behind the cold, castle walls of the institution. It is about forging a new relationship of collaboration with the public we serve. It is about our shared goal of a better and more accurately informed society.

We all make mistakes. That’s not the question. The question is what we do next.

The content map and corrections

I think there is an elegantly simple solution to the problem of attaching corrections to earlier errors in news: It’s the link, the tag, and the content map.

There has been a great deal of discussion, following NY Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt’s column on errors, regarding what to do about old, incorrect articles on a subject that come up higher in search results than newer, corrected articles. Suggested solutions range from killing the old articles, which Hoyt considers, to correcting them to relying on the web and search. I agree most with that last solution, which comes from taguru David Weinberger. Nicholas Carr gets it exactly backwards when he says that search-engine optimization of article archives manipulates history and so old articles should be killed to make the web forget; that would be the criminal manipulation of history. [See correction below - ed] Weinberger says, for example, that if the Times killed all of Judy Miller’s incorrect stories we would be left without an understanding of the paper’s role in the Iraq invasion. I would follow the ethic of the correction I have learned in the blog world, a standard that requires openness and transparency (that is, admitting our errors as we correct them — quickly).

I say we can use the architecture of the web to fix errors and follow the ethic of the open correction, using those existing tools I listed above. Consider the case of a Times reporter writing an article that follows up on and corrects an earlier article. You can bet that the reporter writing the later story looked up the prior art; we are all trained to check the clip file. So there is likely to be knowledge of the conflict. In this case, here’s how the two can be connected:

* The reporter or editor can link to the old, incorrect article. The web site can then sense any internal links to the original article and display those links on it. If you find the wrong article in a search, you can see that there is a follow-up. Indeed, that follow-up could be labeled “correction” to make it apparent. And the Times site could display anything with the “correction” tag separately and prominently.

* Even if the two are not explicitly linked, they can be connected with tags. If reporters and editors both tag their stories about the subjects, they can be connected.

* Say they aren’t tagged. Their shared topicality can still be sensed. I don’t mean this to be a plug for Daylife, but finding such connections is turning out to be one of the great values of analyzing the body of news, inside one site or across all.

* Now let’s say the correction does not come from the paper that reported the error but from without. Let’s say that here, on Buzzmachine, I write a correction about a Times article. I could link to it and use the tag “correction” and that would then be discoverable (“‘show me all links to this article tagged ‘correction’”). I’d argue that the Times should display such links. But if they don’t, I’ll suggest that Craig Silverman could make a service of this at Regret the Error.

* And let’s say this isn’t about an explicit correction but instead about followups and more information. This is why I want to see the map of content and all its interrelations.

* Now if you want to get really ambitious, it’d be great if I could subscribe to old articles I’d read or written about so I could be alerted if there are any corrections, an idea I talked about last year. I could easily see becoming inundated with corrections but I think there’s a way to prioritize them.

But now pull back to the simplest level: If the Times linked to and tagged articles and exposed the links among them, many of the problems Hoyt et al wrote about would be fixed.

: LATER: I spoke with Times reporter Abby Goodnough at length about this and more for her Week in Review piece today about rumors that do and don’t get traction in media and blogs. It’s also possible that this content map could affect stories as they develop, linking half-baked reports with later reporting and then complete stories and then followups.

: CORRECTION: Nicholas Carr in the comments corrects me: He did not call for killing articles. I got that wrong and apologize. We still disagree about who’s manipulating history. But we don’t disagree about maintaining history. Sorry. This is what Carr said:

So if we are programming the Web to remember, should we also be programming it to forget – not by expunging information, but by encouraging certain information to drift, so to speak, to the back of the Web’s mind?

Though he explicitly said that information should not be expunged, I misinterpreted — and actually still don’t understand — what he means about letting information drift. Expunge or hide, I’d still argue that linking is best.