Mea Culpas In A Digital Age; How Should We Handle Corrections?

There have always been mistakes made in journalism. Newspapers report “errata”, usually on page two. Unknown how many people actually read those corrections. In the digital space, it is easier to make corrections, but there is no agreed-upon norm for how to go about it.

This hasn’t been a good week for me; ditto Reuters and Wired.

An original analysis that I wrote Sunday contained two simple errors. (I miscounted the number of pages an article covered, and I asserted that there were quotes when there was only data cited.) Then a Reuters piece I used as a seed turns out to have been, umm, upside down.

I’m a firm believer in making it obvious that a substantive change has been made, using the blogger ethic of strike-through (delete) and underline (new copy). One benefit: the reader can see the change. Another and perhaps more important one: the URL doesn’t change, so anyone who comes to the story from a Tweet or shared link … will see the updated version.

That’s what I did to my complex response to a complex issue (farm policy). The result is not pretty — it retains my mistakes for the world to see — but it is a more “complete” story than if I had simply deleted and re-wrote.

I did the same thing for my article about FOX News finances and taxes, the one that jumped off from the flawed Reuters analysis.

But that’s not how Reuters handled their story. If you follow the Reuters link in my post, you’ll be greeted with a stock 404 page:

reuters 404

In my opinion, this is a bad practice. At a minimum, the original link — which was Tweeted, Facebooked and GooglePlused around the world — should contain a statement that the article had been in error and provide a link to the mea culpa. In a perfect world, the new “how did it happen” column would have been copied and pasted in its stead, given that the premise of the first column was flawed.

Here’s my third example. Over at Salon, Glenn Greenwald continues taking Wired to task over its release of “selected portions of purported chat logs between Bradley Manning and government informant Adrian Lamo.” Wired has finally released the full logs, something Greenwald has recommended that they do … since June 2010. Greenwald writes:

Now that Wired has released the full chats, I just want to highlight a few passages that they concealed, and dispassionately lay out several key facts, so that everyone can decide for themselves if Wired told the truth about their conduct and assess the journalistic propriety of it.

In releasing the logs, Wired brushes over its earlier, selective sharing of log contents.

When we broke the news of Manning’s arrest in June 2010, we judged, after discussions with Manning’s friends and family, that the logs included sensitive personal information with no bearing on WikiLeaks, and it would serve no purpose to publish them… We also exercised what we felt was due caution to avoid inadvertently revealing sensitive military information in the midst of a complex, breaking news story.

This is the same answer that Wired gave Greenwald last June.

But what about this excerpt, the one where Lamo lied to Manning?

LAMO: I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.

Greenwald’s response:

So Lamo lied to and manipulated Manning by promising him the legal protections of a journalist-source and priest-penitent relationship, and independently assured him that their discussions were “never to be published” and were not “for print.” Knowing this, Wired hid from the public this part of their exchange, published the chat in violation of Lamo’s clear not-for-publication pledges, allowed Lamo to be quoted repeatedly in the media over the next year as some sort of credible and trustworthy source driving reporting on the Manning case, all while publicly (and falsely) insisting that the only chat log portions it was withholding were — to use Poulsen’s words — “either Manning discussing personal matters . . . or apparently sensitive government information.”

I include the Wired/Salon exchange to point out that there are lots of different kinds of reporting errors. Mine from Sunday: sloppy but tangental to my fundamental criticisms of the article. Reuters: an honest mistake that illustrates how bloody complex SEC documents are and how, umm, inconsistent accounting practices really are … but one that was fundamental to the argument presented in the column. Wired? What appears to be deliberate misrepresentation by omission. Of the three, I believe that the Wired “error” is more serious. It’s also one that would never have been ‘corrected’ with a page two errata statement.

What do you think? How should we (the Royal We, as in media in general) handle errors and corrections?

Cross-posted from The Moderate Voice

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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