Here’s my Guardian column this week — about making mistakes and corrections online — in full:
The internet speeds up the dissemination of not only information but also misinformation. So what are we to do about this? Regulate? Legislate? Complain? Ignore? Or respond?
Consider the experience of Tim Toulmin, director of the Press Complaints Commission, when the BBC reported online that he thought bloggers should subscribe to a voluntary code of conduct, or else there is no redress for errors. I was one of many bloggers who responded tartly. On my site and on the MediaGuardian podcast, I called Toulmin – with apologies, dear readers – a “Brit twit” for thinking that one could regulate this vast conversation, which is what blogs really are.
Only problem is, Toulmin didn’t say that. He told me by email that if he had, he might have understood my moniker for him. But instead, he complained to the BBC and to me, making reference to damage and lawyers. Both of us clarified what we wrote. And Toulmin told his tale in last week’s MediaGuardian.
The internet can be better at corrections than old media. A fix can be attached to an error where it occurs, and many online denizens pride themselves on confessing missteps faster than their print and broadcast counterparts. But the internet can also be worse – online, errors can spread wider faster and take on a longer half-life. I wish we had a technical solution – that everyone who linked to an incorrect article could receive an alert and correction.
The internet brings a fundamental change to the relationship of publisher and subject: now the subject can publish, too. So Susan Crawford, a professor at New York’s Cardozo Law School and a member of Icann, the board that oversees internet structure, has blogged that in this era, “libel law seems much less relevant – rather than sue, you can just write back”. A commenter on my blog responded that some bloggers boast larger audiences than others, so this playing field isn’t as level as it seems: “On occasion, a weak target can become a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre.” True. But I still argue that libel law was built for an era when few owned the press and the doctrine must be updated to account for the democratised and accelerated means of response today.
Should blogs subscribe to a code of conduct? I don’t think so (and neither does Toulmin). Again, blogs are mostly just people in conversation and I don’t wave a code when I talk to my neighbours and friends; I know that my integrity rests on my credibility. On the other hand, when I argue that bloggers who commit acts of journalism should enjoy the rights and privileges of professional journalists, how can I say that they should not suffer the same regulation? Well, for me, that’s easy, because as an American first amendment absolutist, I bristle at any attempt to regulate speech.
And I do fear that in their efforts to protect truth, legislatures, courts and self-appointed industry watchdogs could chill speech in new ways. If the people fear retribution without the legal resources that the owners of presses have, they will either shut up or hide behind the anonymity the internet allows. That would be a tragedy.
We need to recognise that the internet alters how media operate. Blogs – whether written by professionals or amateurs – tend to publish first and edit later, which can work because the audience will edit you. In this medium, stories are never done; rather than turning into fish-wrap, they can grow and become more factual and gather new perspectives, thanks to the power of the link and, yes, the correction.
We all make mistakes. We’re human. And the internet makes our humanity more apparent than polished print and broadcast do. So we need to modify our expectations of media, tune our scepticism, update our laws, restrain our regulation and enhance our technology. We are left, though, with the same ethic of the error we have always had: it’s wrong to make them and right to correct them, and you get a bonus for apology. So, Mr Toulmin, I’m sorry.