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.