Op-Ed
Op-Ed

A rule for online news: Errors are inevitable; lack of transparency is not

In the digital realm, there are no hard deadlines. Editors can tweak a story and reporters can update it at any moment. The ability to revise without limit — virtually instantaneously — has, of course, revolutionized journalism. But most publications still haven't figured out a good way to alert readers to substantive changes and alterations.

If there's an error of fact, publications may amend the digital text and add a correction, usually at the bottom of the Web page. Editors often put through non-factual changes without bothering to notify readers at all. Rarely do corrections or clarifications carry any kind of explanation: how the reporter got the wrong vote count for an important bill; why the editor decided that the penultimate paragraph wasn't really necessary. There's a stunning lack of transparency.

Case in point: a recent New York Times report on Hillary Rodham Clinton's private email server. The original story claimed that two inspectors general had asked the Justice Department “to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information.” Later, the paper changed that line to “a criminal investigation into whether sensitive government information was mishandled in connection with the personal email account Hillary Rodham Clinton used as secretary of state.”

Catch the difference? The first text implied possible wrongdoing by Clinton herself; the second did not. And that wasn't the only significant change the paper made to the story over the next 48 hours — changes that were not readily apparent to readers viewing it at any given moment.

The New York Times first published the story July 23. Editors ultimately decided to append two correction notes to the end of the story, one July 25 and another July 26, after several rounds of changes. The final correction didn't appear in print until July 26. A further explanation of the errors appeared in print July 29.

As the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, stated in her postmortem on the affair, “you can't put stories like this back in the bottle — they ripple through the entire news system.”

That's partly because the onus is on readers to return to an article for any updates or corrections. Anyone who doesn't check back may blithely share false information on social media, where it may circulate freely. Indeed, a recent study by the American Press Institute found that “false information on Twitter overpowers efforts to correct it by a ratio of about 3 to 1.” (That is, there are three times as many incorrect tweets as corrective tweets on the same subject.)

I don't mean to pick on the New York Times, which is hardly the only publication to race to report a story, only to change it later without making a sincere effort to keep readers up to date. On Aug. 19, for instance, the Associated Press published a story about the Iran nuclear deal giving the impression that Tehran, rather than the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, would inspect alleged nuclear work sites. Over the course of the day, however, it deleted many of the most damning details, without explanation.

Errors are inevitable; lack of transparency is not. Digital publishing has made it possible for editors not only to scrub or enhance stories as they develop but also to pull back the curtain — to make sure readers see and understand what they've done.

A simple “track changes” button near the top of a story could allow readers to see a marked-up page. All post-publication changes would be visible to readers, and the editor could provide annotations to explain why the changes were made, and when. Publications could even offer an option to only show major (factual) or minor (stylistic) changes.

A website called NewsDiffs, co-created by former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee, has already developed software to track changes for several news sites, including CNN.com, Politico.com, NYTimes.com, WashingtonPost.com and BBC.co.uk. Users can download NewsDiffs technology to their Web browsers (but not yet to their mobile phones).

Publications could also offer a “follow” function. Readers who signed up for this feature would receive an alert in the format of their choice — an email, a desktop notification, a mobile notification — whenever changes or corrections were made to a story they'd already viewed. The reader wouldn't need to do the work of tracking down updates; instead, updates would come to them directly.

Automatic updates would not only benefit audiences; they could also help news providers convert one-off readers into loyal customers. Many modern news consumers read whatever comes their way on social media, but updates from a single source might give them a reason to return.

A recent Ipsos study found that only 10% of those surveyed believe that the news industry “acts with integrity.” Perhaps that's in part because publications often tend to minimize or hide mistakes instead of doing their utmost to correct the record.

Anthony De Rosa is the former editor in chief of Circa, a mobile news start-up.

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