Guardian column: Making mistakes

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 célèbre.” 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.

  • Jeff,

    I’ve been going to IraqSlogger — where Zeyad is working for Eason Jordan — and I really like the news roundups and some of the features. I have noticed, however, that there is no way for us to comment or respond to any of the articles and that there is currently no roundup of what the Iraqi bloggers are writing.

    Iraqi blogger Baghdad Treasure has just posted a very good blog entry on what it was like to grow up hating Jews because of the propaganda under Saddam’s totalitarian control. He writes movingly how just in the last couple of years he has been able to learn the truth for himself — from blogs!

    While I really like IraqSlogger, I hope that they decide to make it more interactive and that they include the voices of the Iraqi bloggers.


  • Jeff,

    I have found that the blogosphere is quicker to correct mistakes than the MSM. I have friends who are journalists, one of them working in Iraq right now with the New York Times, and overall they are doing very good work with all the professionalism one would expect. But one problem they have with breaking news is the rush to locate a source and then beat the competition to the story. And that rush to print often compromises their integrity — and because of the 24-hr cycle, they rarely go back to the same story.

    A good example of this is the story of the looting of the Iraqi National Musuem just after the fall of Baghdad. Two years ago I spent a month researching that story — in German and French, along with English — and wrote up what I found and then posted it (Iraq Antiquities Revisited). This is from the end of the piece, where I am summarizing my findings:

    Months later, when the truth finally surfaced and people began to ask how the reporters had made so many basic mistakes, John F. Burns would confess to Andrew Lawler that he and the other journalists were “disposed to believe the worst” and that “passion got the better of us.” John F. Burns, to his credit, was one of the few people involved in this story to admit that a mistake had been made. (21)

    John F. Burns and Paul McGeough were also simply exhausted. They had been reporting non-stop for several months with a maximum of a few hours of sleep a night and trying to function under considerable and sometimes daily threats to their lives. They also were operating in an environment where it was almost impossible to verify much of the information that they gathered. (22)

    If there were one mistake that overshadowed all the others it would have to be using Nabhal Amin as a reliable witness when, in fact, she no longer worked for the museum complex. John F. Burns, Paul McGeough, Hamza Hendawi, and Hassan Hafidh had neither the time nor resources — or perhaps even the inclination — to verify her claim of identity and position.

    All the journalists that day used one source, Nabhal Amin, and she was not a credible witness. Amazingly to me, no one went back the next day to track her down to confirm her original statements or searched out anyone who could corroborate her claims. One woman’s interpretation of the events was allowed to echo around the world as the truth. Very hard to believe, but that is indeed what happened.

    So, I agree with you. Let’s keep a thousands eyes on the stories and let the principles of verification and debate proceed. We then stand a much better chance of learning what really happened.


  • There is an unresolved issue with mistakes. Does the publisher issue a correction as a separate item, or does the publisher go back into the archives and correct the original item?

    With most publications being archived electronically the latter option is easy to do. I remember several cases from my publishing days where pages were sent to journal subscribers to paste over the page with the error. In one case an entire issue was reprinted and sent out.

    So should the error be erased or should the correction be part of the history? How does one ensure that the two items will remain together in that case? What about the case where the original item has already been quoted elsewhere in the erroneous form. The publisher has no way of knowing this and the commentator has no way of knowing of the correction.

    In some cases changing the original may be seen as a response to political pressure or censorship. Hiding the change abets the conspiracy.

  • Colin Cooper

    I think this debate about mistakes is missing the main point of libel laws. Yes, everyone makes mistakes – some more damaging than others – but as long as everyone agrees to correct those mistakes when pointed out, there should be no real problem. But what about malicious falsehoods? Accusations that have been made with no attempt at accuracy, merely to defame the target? What if the defamer will not gentlemanly withdraw the remarks? Surely there must be some redress for the victim – and that is what the libel laws, however inefficient, are there to provide. I don’t see much point in a code of practice because it won’t stop anyone who simply wants to attack someone else’s reputation without any regard for the truth. For those cases, libel laws are as necessary as they ever were.

  • Transparency is certainly the key here. If the viewer can see what was changed and when, with access to the previous version and reasons, then certainly I think it is okay to ammend the original, archived version. A casual searcher may only find the original item and not come across an addemendum.

    It would be wonderful to have some kind of reference device, with which changes to the original would then cascade through those pages that reference it. That is a bit pie in the sky though. Some internet wizard needs to make it happen.

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  • As one who tries to get substantive and accurate sources for any statement I make in my blog (see homepage), I have discovered good information in a source that is more radical than I would like, and will use it with a stipulation to see the sources cited by that particular item. If I had days and days, I would go to the background material and painstakingly track down the exact pieces of info. No, I don’t have days and days before the particular post would be stone-cold stale. I also have discovered that when there is a damaging piece of info about our gov’t there will also be posted a dispute with that info by our gov’t – what a lot of $$ we seem to be spending arguing with what usually turns out to be accurate, but not flattering to the gov’t – do I just ignore those pieces of propaganda in the interest of time? I have come to the conclusion that they are simple obfuscation, they haven’t yet worked out to be accurate.

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