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July 29 2011

19:49

Better to be first or right? - A false choice and an excuse

The Buttry Diary :: An editor asks by email a question Steve Buttry hears often as journalists address the challenges of digital journalism: Is it better to be first, or be right?” Three times recently, the editor said, his staff was beaten (not on breaking news), but the competition had major errors in its reports. “When we published, we got the stories right, though, again, not first,” the editor said."I regard this as a false choice," writes Steve Buttry.

[Steve Buttry:] I believe accuracy and verification become more important in digital journalism than in print journalism. The daily deadlines of print usually give you hours to nail down the facts before you have to publish. The constant deadlines of digital publishing mean that you publish when you have the facts verified

Better to be first or right?

Continue to read Steve Buttry, stevebuttry.wordpress.com

March 11 2011

15:00

Why Hasn't LA Weekly Corrected its Lara Logan Story?

On February 15 the LA Weekly published a post by Simone Wilson under the headline "Lara Logan, CBS Reporter and War Zone 'It Girl,' Raped Repeatedly Amid Egypt Celebration." The opening paragraph stated that Logan had been "brutally and repeatedly raped" -- with that phrase emphasized in bold type.

The LA Weekly apparently got the story wrong. Logan had suffered a horrifying sexual assault while working in Cairo's Tahrir Square, disturbing details of which came to light in subsequent media coverage. But according to reporting from three different news outlets
-- The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and IOL News of South Africa (Logan's native country) -- Logan was not raped. Those articles were cited in a MediaBugs error report posted last week by Tracy Clark-Flory, a journalist who covers women's issues. (Disclosure: Clark-Flory is a friend and former colleague of mine at Salon.) Since the report was posted, MediaBugs sent three emails to LA Weekly editors seeking a response. We've received none.

It's understandable how a news organization might have made this kind of mistake; while many initial reports about Logan's attack adhered to a statement from CBS News describing "a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating," LA Weekly wasn't the only outlet to make the leap to "rape." (See Jen Phillips' post on MotherJones.com for more on this.)

Still, it's troubling that more than three weeks later the LA Weekly has not posted a correction on its piece, or explained why it believes no correction is warranted. To say that accuracy is important to a news organization's credibility is stating the obvious -- but it seems particularly crucial when public understanding is distorted around a story as emotionally and politically fraught as Logan's.

The Central Fact Was Wrong

Here's one small anecdote showing why. Last weekend I described the issue to a friend who is well-read on current events. He said that he'd seen the LA Weekly piece, among others. When I told him that Logan apparently had not been raped, he was surprised -- he'd understood that to be a central fact of the story.

Logan3.pngThe LA Weekly's silence on the matter could in part be due to the withering criticism it came under for Wilson's piece, which ran with a curvaceous photo of Logan and used various sexualized descriptions of her, including "firecracker" and "gutsy stunner." Newsrooms tend to circle the wagons when under attack.

That uproar, ultimately, was a matter of editorial judgment and (brutally bad) taste, one that LA Weekly editors may or may not choose to address at some point. (Wilson did so, to some degree, in an update appended to her post on Feb. 16.)

But this issue is more straightforward. By not addressing the apparent factual mistakes brought to its attention, the LA Weekly not only damages its reputation but also does a disservice to Logan's story, which has cast a powerful light on a previously underreported problem faced by female journalists. The uncorrected errors take a piece that already comes across as insensitive and make it seem irresponsible, too.

January 17 2011

20:12

Accuracy and accountability checklist for social media

Way back in the early fall, when the Online News Association conference was going on here in D.C., Craig Silverman of Regret the Error did a great accuracy workshop in conjunction with TBD. He created an accuracy checklist aimed at helping reporters avoid common errors. My boss, Steve Buttry, expanded on Silverman’s list at his own blog a couple of weeks ago. This checklist approach inspired me to think of ways to avoid accuracy and reporting errors in my own little corner of the journalism world.

In the rapid-fire world of social media, it’s easy for a journalist or news organization to make mistakes. Sometimes, these things happen in the heat of the moment, but more often than not the errors seem to stem from a widespread belief amongst journalists that Twitter carries less need for accuracy and accountability than the full-story medium. Recent events have told us otherwise.

I believe there is an ever-increasing need for accuracy and accountability in how we as journalists use social media. This inspired me to start my own accuracy checklist for the TBD staff, but I thought it may be better to share with a larger audience. Feel free to add your notes and additions in the comments. I consider this a work in progress.

Accuracy Checklist for Social Media

Before tweeting:

  • How do I know this information?
  • Is this information independently confirmed? Should it be first?
  • Do I know the location of the news event? Check a map.
  • Will this require follow-up tweets to better explain? Do I know this story well enough to follow-up?

When tweeting:

  • Are proper names spelled correctly?
  • Does the link go to the right place? Is it shortened properly?
  • Are any Twitter handles included? Do they go to the right accounts?
  • Does this tweet need a hat tip for another Twitter account/news outlet who had the info first?
  • Is a location included/necessary?
  • Is this tweet short enough to be easily re-tweeted?
  • Check to see if auto-correct changed the text intended.
  • Check your shorthand and contractions to make sure they make sense.

When re-tweeting:

  • Is it clear why I want to share this tweet, or does it need context?
  • Is this tweet reporting heretofore unknown information?
  • If so, is this source reliable enough to throw your name behind?
  • Is the original tweet written clearly enough to be passed on from me?

When sharing on Facebook:

  • Is the image that shows up in my link preview actually connected to the story?
  • Is the post text and headline reflective of the content of the story?
  • Are any tagged users in images/posts the correct people?

What’s missing here? Let me know. eventually, I’ll make this look spiffy and get it online as a lovely printable document.

December 05 2010

14:30

CNN Fails to Correct Mistaken Identity for New Zealand PM

CNN's broadcasts are of packed with cheerleading for the network's viewer participation opportunities. You're encouraged to "share your story" at CNN iReport or "join a live chat" at Anderson Cooper's blog or check out CNN Heroes on Facebook or follow one of the network's nearly three dozen Twitter feeds. Welcome to the brave new world of interactive news!

But what if you notice an error in a CNN broadcast and want to tell the network about it?

Welcome to the jungle.

Email Black Hole

Back on October 28, a MediaBugs user filed a bug pointing out that a CNN broadcast had misidentified the prime minister of New Zealand as a film executive. You can watch the video below:

A primary goal of MediaBugs is to help improve communication between the public and newsrooms on error reports; currently we reach out to reporters and editors to let them know when bugs are filed.

Over the ensuing two weeks, I emailed CNN twice using an email form designated on its website for reporting an error. I got no response. That wasn't entirely surprising because the form's auto-reply message says, "While we are unable to personally reply to every email, your comments are important to us, and we do read each and every one."

CNN.com provides no contact information for editorial staff. (My search engine sleuthing for CNN managing editor Jay Kernis' email address proved unfruitful.) Eventually, I came across a Twitter account on a feedback page for CNN TV, @TeamCNN, whose bio indicates it is "dedicated to assisting our viewers." After a cordial exchange of messages on Twitter, @TeamCNN asked me to submit the error using another email form, which was different from, though similar to, the one I'd used earlier. It was Nov. 18, three weeks since the bug had been filed. "We will look into it," @TeamCNN said.

After a couple more Twitter exchanges, there was still no result. Another week had passed. CNN may present itself as on the cutting edge of social media, but clearly it was time to pick up the phone. There had to be a way to reach a real live person in the newsroom, even though the only number I could find anywhere on CNN's website was buried at the bottom of this About page. It was for contacting the network's "Copyright Agent." Googling farther afield, I dug up a number for a main line at CNN headquarters in Atlanta and asked the operator to connect me to the appropriate department. I reached an editorial assistant and explained the situation. He agreed that I should email him the bug report, saying he'd look into it. I sent him the link a few minutes after we hung up. A few days later I followed up at the same email address to check on a result.

No Correction

As of this writing, CNN still hasn't provided a response. Perhaps the particular broadcast error is so far in the rear view mirror at this point that correcting it doesn't much matter to them. So what if a handful of viewers were left thinking that the creative director of WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, is a dead ringer for New Zealand Prime Minister John Key?

Or, for all we know, the network may have already issued a correction on the air weeks ago. The problem is, there's no way to find out on its website because CNN.com has no corrections content at all.

The point of slogging through this tale isn't to pick on CNN, but rather to illuminate an endemic problem. CNN.com is hardly alone in its inaccessibility and unresponsiveness, as MediaBugs' recently published national survey of news sites reveals. We've had similar experiences reporting errors via MediaBugs with Fox News, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

With digital platforms for news in rapid ascendancy, this status quo is untenable. Today, problems in news coverage are being discussed online by anyone and everyone; newsrooms need to welcome sincere attempts by the public to notify them about factual mistakes.

That means offering real accessibility -- a clear way to report an error and a commitment to responding. Many news sites still rely on a generic email address or a form buried deep in their pages, or on chaotic comments threads, for feedback. But if reporting an error using those channels feels like pulling back window curtains on a brick wall, why would anyone bother?

Positive Results

We've been glad to see several positive outcomes at MediaBugs, too, with timely corrections from CBSNews.com, and from KCBS and KNTV in San Francisco. Thus far these have been the exception. But the good news is that it's pretty easy for newsrooms to make effective changes on this front (see our rundown of best practices in error reporting and corrections).

And let's take it a step further, toward a real breakthrough: Maybe one day soon, the industry standard will be for all online news pages to have a prominently placed, universal button for reporting an error. A new project just launched by MediaBugs founder Scott Rosenberg and Craig Silverman of Regret the Error (and PBS MediaShift) is aiming for just that. Newsrooms of the 21st century: Please join us as a participant in the Report an Error Alliance.

December 01 2010

17:50

'Report an Error' Button Should Be Standard on News Sites

The web is a two-way medium. But when it comes to reporting errors on news sites, too often, it might as well be broadcast or print.

It's time to change that. That's why, yesterday, we announced the launch of the Report an Error Alliance -- an ad hoc coalition of news organizations and individuals who believe that every news page on the web ought to have a clearly labeled button for reporting errors.

Today's articles come with their own array of buttons for sharing -- and print and email and so on. We believe that opening a channel for readers to report errors is at least as important as any of those functions.

We aim to make the "report an error" button a new web standard. Toward that end, we're releasing a set of icons that anyone can use for this purpose. It's up to each publisher what to do with them -- link them to a form or an email address, use a dedicated error-reporting service like MediaBugs, or choose any other option that suits your needs. What's important is that the button be handy, right by the story, not buried deep in a sea of footer links or three layers down a page hierarchy.

We've got a handful of forward-thinking web news outfits signed on already -- including the Toronto Star, TBD.com, Salon.com, Poynter.org, and NewsTrust.net. We hope to see this roster grow. We also encourage individuals to add their names to our alliance as an indication of your support for this new standard.

Kathy English, public editor at the Toronto Star, which already has its own "report an error" button, said, "I'm pleased that the Star is a founding member of this important initiative to help assure greater accuracy in digital journalism. The Star has long encouraged readers to report errors for correction, in print and online, where the 'Report an Error' function in effect turns every reader into a fact checker. This is a strong step forward in establishing industry best practices for online accuracy and corrections."

Not a Magic Solution

Report an Error is intended to be a focused effort toward a simple goal. Too many news sites still make it hard for you to tell them they made a mistake. Such reports get buried in voice-mail boxes and lost in flame-infested comment threads. Yet journalists still need to hear them, and readers deserve to know that they've been heard.

Implementing a "report an error" button isn't by itself a magic solution to the problem of accuracy and the erosion of confidence in the media. But it's a good start at repairing the growing rift between the press and the public. It's like putting a badge on everything you publish that says, "If you see a problem, we really want to know about it!"

So visit our Report an Error site, join the Alliance yourself, and grab some of our icons to use on your news pages and posts.

The Report an Error Alliance project is a collaboration between Craig Silverman of Regret The Error (and managing editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab) and myself. Though it grows out of my work on MediaBugs, it's a separate effort, intended to distill the simplest, easiest, and most important step in this area that every news website can take.

November 01 2010

19:33

Why MediaBugs Won't Take the Red or Blue (State) Pill

MediaBugs.org, our service for reporting errors in news coverage, has just opened up from being a local effort in the San Francisco Bay Area to covering the entire U.S. We're excited about that expansion, and we've spiffed up various aspects of our site, too -- check it out.

But with this expansion we face an interesting dilemma. Building a successful web service means tapping into users' passions. And there's very little that people in the U.S. are more passionate about today than partisan politics.

We have two very distinct populations in the country today with widely divergent views. They are served by separate media establishments, and they even have their own media-criticism establishments divided along the red and blue axis.

So the easiest way to build traffic and participation for a new service in the realm of journalism is to identify yourself with one side or the other. Instant tribe, instant community. Take a red-state pill or a blue-state pill, and start watching the rhetoric fly and the page views grow.

I'm determined not to do that with MediaBugs, though it's sorely tempting. Here's why.

The Road Less Traveled

I don't and can't claim any sort of neutrality or freedom from bias as an individual, and neither, I believe can any journalist. Anyone who reads my personal blog or knows my background understands that I'm more of a Democratic, liberal-progressive kind of person. This isn't about pretending to some sort of unattainable ideal of objectivity or about seeking to present the "view from nowhere."

Instead, our choice to keep MediaBugs far off the red/blue spectrum is all about trying to build something unique. The web is already well-stocked with forums for venting complaints about the media from the left and the right. We all know how that works, and it works well, in its way. It builds connections among like-minded people, it stokes fervor for various causes, and sometimes it even fuels acts of research and journalism.

What it rarely does, unfortunately, is get results from the media institutions being criticized. Under the rules of today's game, the partisan alignment of a media-criticism website gives the target of any criticism an easy out. The partisan approach also fails to make any headway in actually bringing citizens in the different ideological camps onto the same playing field. And I believe that's a social good in itself.

It would be easy to throw up our hands and say, "Forget it, that will never happen" -- except that we have one persuasive example to work from. Wikipedia, whatever flaws you may see in it, built its extraordinary success attracting participation from across the political spectrum and around the world by explicitly avowing "a neutral point of view" and establishing detailed, open, accountable processes for resolving disputes. It can get ugly, certainly, in the most contested subject areas. But it seems, overall, to work.

Fair, Open System

So with MediaBugs, we're renouncing the quick, easy partisan path. We hope, of course, that in return for sacrificing short-term growth we'll emerge with a public resource of lasting value. The individuals participating in MediaBugs bring their own interests and passions into the process. It's the process that we can try to maintain as a fair, open system, as we try to build a better feedback loop for fixing errors and accumulate public data about corrections.

To the extent that we are able to prove ourselves as honest brokers in the neverending conflicts and frictions that emerge between the media and the public, we will create something novel in today's media landscape: An effective tool for media reform that's powered by a dedication to accuracy and transparency -- and that transcends partisan anger.

I know many of you are thinking, good luck with that. We'll certainly need it!

September 30 2010

11:30

Distrust in US media at record high, according to Gallup poll

Distrust in mass media in the US has reached a record high, having risen for the fourth year running. In a recent Gallup poll, 57 per cent of respondents said they had little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.

The 43 per cent who answered that they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in mass media make up a joint record-low. An earlier poll, conducted by Gallup last month, suggested that trust in newspaper and television news is particularly low, with just 22 per cent saying they had quite a lot or a great deal of trust in newspapers and 25 per cent saying the same for television.

The suvey suggests a sharp decline in trust in the branches of government, with Gallup recording a record low for the legislative branch, worse than the media rating.  The executive and judicial branches of government fared better but also suffered declines.

Other findings suggest that nearly half of Americans (48 per cent) think the media is too liberal, compared with just 15 per cent who think it is too conservative. Sixty-three per cent of respondents perceived bias in one direction or the other.

A recent YouGov poll of the UK found that trust in media outlets is in steep decline. The survey suggests that ‘upmarket’ newspapers (Times, Telegraph Guardian) had an approval rating of 41 per cent, ‘mid-markets’ (Mail, Express) 21 per cent, and red-tops  just 10 per cent.

Full Gallup findings at this link…Similar Posts:



August 27 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: ‘Mosques’ and SEO, Google’s search and social troubles, and a stateless WikiLeaks

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Maintaining accuracy in an SEO-driven world: Apparently the future-of-news world isn’t immune to the inevitable dog days of August, because this week was one of the slowest in this corner of the web in the past year. There were still some interesting discussions simmering, so let’s take a look, starting with the political controversy du jour: The proposed construction of a Muslim community center in downtown Manhattan near the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. I’m not going to delve into the politics of the issue, or even the complaints that this story is symptomatic of a shallow news media more concerned about drummed-up controversy than substantive issues. Instead, I want to focus on the decisions that news organizations have been making about what to call the project.

It has predominantly been called the “ground zero mosque,” though beginning about two weeks ago, some attention began being trained on news organizations — led most vocally by The New York Times and The Associated Press, which changed its internal label for the story — that wouldn’t use that phrase out of a concern for accuracy. The Village Voice used some Google searches to find that while there’s been an uptick in news sources’ use of the project’s proper names (Park51 and the Cordoba Center), “ground zero mosque” is still far and away the most common designation.

What’s most interesting about this discussion are the ideas about why a factually inaccurate term has taken such a deep root in coverage of the issue, despite efforts to refute it: The Village Voice pointed a finger at cable news, which has devoted the most time to the story, while the Online Journalism Review’s Brian McDermott pinpointed our news consumption patterns driven by “warp-speed skimming” and smart-phone headlines that make easy labels more natural for readers and editors.” Watery qualifiers like ‘near’ or ’so-called’ don’t stick in our brains as much, nor do they help a website climb the SEO ladder.”

Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride zeroed in on that idea of search-engine optimization, noting that the AP is being punished for their stand against the term “ground zero mosque” by not appearing very highly on the all-important news searches for that phrase. In order to stay relevant to search engines, news organizations have to continue using an inaccurate term once it’s taken hold, she concluded. In response, McBride suggested pre-emptively using factchecking resources to nip misconceptions in the bud. “Now that Google makes it impossible to move beyond our distortions — even when we know better — we should be prepared,” she said.

Google’s search and social takes shots: Google takes more than few potshots every week on any number of subjects, but this week, several of them were related to some intriguing future-of-news issues we’ve been talking about regularly here at the Lab, so I thought I’d highlight them a bit. Ex-Salon editor Scott Rosenberg took Google News to task for its placement of an Associated Content article at the top of search results on last week’s Dr. Laura Schlessinger controversy. Associated Content is the giant “content farm” bought earlier this year by Yahoo, and its Dr. Laura article appears to be a particularly mediocre constructed article cynically designed solely to top Google’s ranking for “Dr. Laura n-word.”

Rosenberg takes the incident as a sign that reliability of Google News’ search results has begun to be eclipsed by content producers’ guile: “When Google tells me that this drivel is the most relevant result, I can’t help thinking, the game’s up.” The Lab’s Jim Barnett also questioned Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent articulation of the company’s idea of automating online serendipity, wondering how a “serendipity algorithm” might shape or limit our worldviews as Google prefers.

Google’s social-media efforts also took a few more hits, with Slate’s Farhad Manjoo conducting a postmortem on Google Wave, homing in on its ill-defined purpose and unnecessary complexity. Google should have positioned Wave as an advanced tool for sophisticated users, Manjoo argued, but the company instead clumsily billed it as the possible widespread successor to email and instant messenging. Meanwhile, Adam Rifkin of GigaOM criticized the company’s acquisition of the social app company Slide (and its social-media attempts in general), advising Google to buy companies whose products fit well into its current offerings, rather than chasing after the social-gaming industry — which he said “feels like it’s about to collapse on itself.”

WikiLeaks, stateless news and transparency: The saga of the open-source leaking website WikiLeaks took a very brief, bizarre turn this weekend, when reports emerged early Saturday that founder Julian Assange was wanted by Swedish authorities for rape, then later that day prosecutors announced he was no longer a suspect. The New York Times provided some great background on Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with various world governments, including the United States, which is reportedly considering charging him under the Espionage Act for WikiLeaks’ release last month of 92,000 pages of documents regarding the war in Afghanistan.

No one really had any idea what to make of this episode, and few were bold enough to make any strong speculations publicly. Two bloggers explored the (possible) inner workings of the situation, with Nicholas Mead using it to argue that catching Assange isn’t exactly going to stop WikiLeaks — as NYU professor Jay Rosen noted last month, WikiLeaks is the first truly stateless news organization, something only permitted by the structure of the web.

That slippery, stateless nature extends to WikiLeaks’ funding, which The Wall Street Journal focused on this week in a fine feature. Unlike the wide majority of news organizations, there is virtually no transparency to WikiLeaks’ funding, though the Journal did piece together a few bits of information: The site has raised $1 million this year, much of its financial network is tied to Germany’s Wau Holland Foundation, and two unnamed American nonprofits serve as fronts for the site.

Hyperlocal news and notes: A few hyperlocal news-related ideas and developments worth passing along: Sarah Hartley, who works on The Guardian’s hyperlocal news efforts, wrote a thoughtful post attempting to define “hyperlocal” in 10 characteristics. Hyperlocal, she argues, is no longer defined by a tight geographical area, but by an attitude. She follows with a list of defining aspects, such as obsessiveness, fact/opinion blending, linking and community participation. It’s a great list, though it seems Hartley may be describing the overarching blogging ethos more so than hyperlocal news per se. (Steve Yelvington, for one, says the term is meaningless.)

Brad Flora at PBS MediaShift provided a helpful list of blogs for hyperlocal newsies to follow. (Disclosure: The Lab is one of them.) And two online media giants made concrete steps in long-expected moves toward hyperlocal news: Microsoft’s Bing launched its first hyperlocal product with a restaurant guide in Portland, and Yahoo began recruiting writers for a local news site in the San Francisco area.

Reading roundup: Despite the slow news week, there’s no shortage of thoughtful pieces on stray subjects that are worth your time. Here’s a quick rundown:

— Spot.Us founder David Cohn wrote an illuminating post comparing journalists’ (particularly young ones’) current search for a way forward in journalism to the ancient Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. TBD’s Steve Buttry, a self-described “old guy,” responded that it may not take a generation to find the next iteration of journalism but said his generation has been responsible for holding innovation back: “We might make it out of the desert, but I think our generation has blown our chance to lead the way.”

— A couple of interesting looks at developing stories online: Terry Heaton posited that one reason for declining trust in news organizations is their focus on their own editorial voice to the detriment of the public’s understanding (something audiences see in stark relief when comparing coverage of developing news), and Poynter’s Steve Myers used the Steven Slater story to examine how news spreads online.

— At The Atlantic, Tim Carmody wrote a fantastic overview of the pre-web history of reading.

— In an argument that mirrors the discussions about the values of the new news ecosystem, former ESPN.com writer Dan Shanoff gave a case for optimism about the current diffused, democratized state of sports media.

— Another glass-half-full post: Mike Mandel broke down journalism job statistics and was encouraged by what he found.

— Finally, for all the students headed back to class right now, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has some of the best journalism-related advice you’ll read all year.

July 29 2010

15:35

Bloomberg Circles the Wagons on Misleading Gulf-Spill Poll

CircleWagons.jpg
News organizations' default response to criticism is to circle the wagons.

"We stand by our story!" is a stirring thing to say, and sometimes it's even the right thing. But in the web world of 2010, where everyone has a public platform, ignoring critics can also squander a news outlet's credibility and alienate its audience.

The basic premise of MediaBugs -- which I laid out in this video -- is that news organizations can begin winning back the public trust they have lost by engaging civilly, in public, with people who criticize them about specific errors. Whoever is right in the end, and whether the newsroom decides to run a correction or not, the editors are better off explaining their thinking than slamming the door on dialogue.

Bloomberg's Poll Problem

For an example of precisely the wrong way of handling legitimate questions about coverage, consider the controversy over a recent Bloomberg opinion poll. Josh Nelson, who blogs at Enviroknow.com, first brought this to our attention. He'd pursued something of a one-man campaign criticizing how Bloomberg framed its reports on a recent poll question about oil-drilling bans in the wake of the Gulf spill. Calling it a one-man campaign is a bit unfair, however, because he was joined by some impressive company along the way.

Here is the issue Nelson raised: Bloomberg's headline for its July 14 story read "Americans in 73% Majority Oppose Deepwater Drilling Ban." Its lead read: "Most Americans oppose President Barack Obama's ban on deepwater oil drilling in response to BP's Gulf of Mexico spill..." Because Bloomberg is a wire service, the story ran in many outlets -- among them, the San Francisco Chronicle/SFGate.

Nelson argued that the headline and lead were not supported by the actual question the poll asked, which was: "Do you think the spill proves off-shore drilling is just too dangerous and should be banned in U.S. waters, or was this a freak accident and offshore drilling can be made safer and should not be banned?"

Nelson wrote:

Obviously, there is a huge difference between an indefinite ban on all offshore drilling and President Obama's temporary moratorium on deepwater drilling. Regardless, Bloomberg polled about the former and reported on the latter.

Here you can read a summary of Nelson's tenacious but ultimately quixotic attempts to get Bloomberg to correct this story. He contacted roughly a dozen Bloomberg staffers. After various referrals, he finally heard from Al Hunt, Bloomberg's executive Washington editor, who supervised the poll. Hunt's first response was:

mr nelson: why don't you write back a serious response that doesn't contain such silly assertions as intentionally misleading reporting or sloppy journalism.

After one further email, Nelson got a second reply from Hunt:

Mr. Nelson: We appreciate your interest in our BP poll and understand that you think the conclusions we reported are wrong. We have reviewed the article in light of your comments and we believe we interpreted the poll data correctly. We encourage you to write a letter to the editor to express your views. -- Al Hunt, Executive Editor

This would appear to be the end of the line for Bloomberg. Nelson's further efforts to get a more satisfying response from the organization went nowhere. After Nelson filed a bug report at MediaBugs, we tried to talk with Bloomberg about the issue. We hit the same wall.

The wagons have circled. Bloomberg stands by its story. End of story?

Why?

Not exactly. Other news outlets have not shared Hunt's view of the matter. The Atlantic ran a correction on one of its blogs; Kevin Drum at Mother Jones called it "stunningly bad journalism"; Jon Cohen of the Washington Post's Behind the Numbers blog took apart the issue as well.

So why is Bloomberg being so obstinate? Here, it seems to me, are the possible scenarios:

  • Bloomberg dislikes the messenger. Unquestionably, Nelson could have pursued his complaint with more diplomatic finesse. One of his blog posts was headlined, "Does Anyone at Bloomberg News Care About Accuracy?" Bloomberg's defensive response may be explained as a natural human reaction to hostile criticism, but it cannot be excused on those grounds. Editors shouldn't make decisions about corrections out of pique. Journalists who care about accuracy have a duty to ignore their personal feelings about critics, to peel away the emotion and consider the substance, if any, of the criticism.
  • Bloomberg is just really busy and uninterested in worrying about yesterday's news. Every news organization is strapped these days, and spending a lot of time sifting through "shoulda-coulda's" from last week's news budget is generally viewed as a luxury at best. We can empathize with harried newsroom managers, but we can't give them a pass. Their future depends on readers' perception that they hold themselves to higher standards than the average person who posts unvetted information online. And on the web there is no such thing as "yesterday's news." Yesterday's error is republished over and over until it is properly corrected.
  • Bloomberg really believes there is no problem here. This one is hard for me to believe, given the evidence. But if it's the case, surely the editors can see the value in actually making their rationale known rather than keeping it to themselves.

All the scenarios point to the same logic: By refusing to give its critic a thorough response, Bloomberg only hurts itself.

July 27 2010

12:49

Complaint over attack on hyperlocal blog upheld by PCC

You may remember ‘investigation’ by The Hull Daily Mail into HU17.net, a hyperlocal publisher that was operating on its patch back in March, and the resulting backlash against the newspaper by observers who saw this as a commercially motivate hatchet job. Now the Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint on the basis “that readers would have been misled as to the scale of the complainant’s involvement in adult websites. The result was a breach of Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code.”

More at Journalism.co.uk (which points out that one of the articles is still online) and Press Gazette.

July 13 2010

17:02

When It Comes to Corrections, Most News Sites Fail

Because web pages are just computer files, news stories on the web can be altered at will after publication. That makes corrections on the web a little more complex than corrections in print -- but it also makes them potentially much more effective. Unlike in print or broadcast, you can fix the original. You can make errors vanish -- though not without a trace, if you're doing it right.

So why do so many news organizations continue to handle their online corrections so poorly? At MediaBugs, where we're devoted to improving the feedback loop between the public and the press, we've just published our first survey of corrections practices at more than two dozen Bay Area news outlets. The report's top-line conclusion? Mostly, they're doing it wrong.

Findings

Three quarters of the 28 news outlets we reviewed provide no corrections-reporting link of any kind on their home or article pages. Even media organizations that show signs of working to handle corrections carefully fall down in various ways -- and lots of others don't look like they're even trying.

Many bury information about how to report errors behind confusing trails of links. Some provide multiple, poorly labeled avenues for feedback without telling readers which ones to use for error reports. Others provide no access to recently corrected articles beyond a search on "corrections," which often turns up multiple stories about prisons.

These findings are disheartening -- not simply for how poorly editors are protecting their readers' trust in them, but also because handling these matters better doesn't take that much effort.

There's really just a small number of things any news website needs to do if it wants to handle corrections and error reports responsibly:

  • Append a note to any article that's been corrected, explaining the change;
  • Keep a list of these changes, linking to the corrected articles, at a fixed location on the site;
  • Post a brief corrections policy, with information about how readers can report errors they find;
  • Make sure that your corrections listing page and your corrections policy (whether they're on the same or different pages) are part of your site navigation -- they should be accessible by one click from any page on your site.

In addition to our survey, we've provided a brief summary of best practices for corrections and error reporting that we hope will be helpful to news site editors and their readers alike.

No More Excuses

Fifteen years ago, in the early days of web publishing, it might have been understandable for editors to have a hard time figuring out how to handle corrections: This pliable medium was new and strange.

But news on the web is no longer in its infancy, and "We're new to this" just doesn't cut it anymore as an explanation for the kind of poor practices our MediaBugs survey documents. The explanations you generally hear are truthful but don't excuse the problems: "Our content management system makes it too hard to do that" or "we just don't have the resources to do that" or "we've been meaning to fix that for a while but never seem to get around to it."

The web excels at connecting people. That's what its technology is for. Yet when it comes to the most basic areas of accuracy and accountability, the professional newsrooms of the Bay Area (and so many other communities) continue to do a poor job of connecting with their own readers.

It's time for news websites to move this issue to the top of their priority lists and get it taken care of. They can do this, in most cases, with just a few changes to site templates and some small improvements in editing procedures. Of course, we hope, once they've done that, that they'll do more: At MediaBugs, we want to see that every news page on the web includes a "Report an Error" button as a standard feature, just like the ubiquitous "Print" buttons, "Share This" links and RSS icons.

MediaBugs offers one easy way to do this -- our error-reporting widget is easy to integrate on any website. You can now see it in action on every story published over at Spot.Us. But there are plenty of other ways to achieve this same end.

As long as readers can quickly and easily find their way to report an error with a single click, we'll be happy. But before we get there, we've all got some basic housekeeping to take care of first. End the suffering of orphaned corrections links and pages now!

December 17 2009

16:00

The Post's Public Enemy Gaffe: Why Circle-The-Wagons is a Joke

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled, by me and others, on the now-infamous Washington Post Public Enemy correction. (If you missed it, the Post ran a correction explaining that a story had "incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number." The correction went viral and inspired a flurry of Twitter responses mocking the paper with other misunderstood hip-hop song titles.)

Before we move on, though, it's worth recording what this incident reveals about the disconnect between newsroom traditions and contemporary reality. A post by the Washington Post ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, on Dec. 11 -- more than two weeks after the error appeared, and a week after the correction was made -- reveals what many knowledgeable readers had already guessed about the incident: the mistake wasn't the fault of the story's writer, who describes herself as someone weaned on hip hop; rather, it was introduced by a copy editor.

Copy editors often save writers' behinds, but they make mistakes, too. I bet everyone involved in this incident at the Post knew exactly what had happened within a few hours. What would the harm have been in immediately posting a brief item on a reporter's blog, or the ombudsman's blog, or appended to the story itself, saying something like, "Whoops! An overeager copy editor who didn't grow up listening to Public Enemy changed '911' to '9/11' in my story yesterday. We'll try to do better next time."

This might not have inoculated the paper against the jokes on Twitter, but it would have better positioned it to accept the jibes in good spirit. As a commenter on a post I wrote on the topic suggested, the Post could even have compiled some of the tweets and published them as a followup.

Instead, the Post followed the circle-the-wagons playbook more appropriate to a Watergate-level power struggle than a little pop-culture gaffe. It waited a week to post the correction, and it was the notice's opacity and stiff tone, as much as the original error, that exposed the paper to ridicule.

Outdated Policy

"You want to be able to defend yourself and you can't," the story's writer, Akeya Dickson, complained to the Post ombudsman. But the only thing gagging the writer was the Post's antiquated rulebook.

Alexander explained that the Post was following its own longstanding policy against finger-pointing in corrections: "We do not assign internal blame for a mistake, such as distinguishing between reporting and editing errors. Ours is a collective enterprise; we share responsibility for our successes, and for our errors."

Perhaps such a policy once made sense. Today it merely confirms the public's belief that newsrooms are impenetrable black boxes, and journalistic enterprises are unaccountable to the public and oblivious to change. Readers understand that journalists are human; unless there's imminent threat of a lawsuit, what's the harm in explaining to your readers how an error got made?

Need For More Collaboration

There is, actually, one problem with such transparency. Admitting that errors are often introduced in the editing process is painful for newsroom traditionalists because it undermines one of the central defenses of professional big-media practices: the notion that layers of editing protocol invariably produce higher-quality journalism.

In fact, the value of editing is inversely proportional to the skill and depth of knowledge of the reporter/writer. Yes, great journalists' work will always benefit from the scrutiny of great editors; but the better the journalist, the less likely it is that she will find herself paired with an editor of her caliber. Too often, the writer is more knowledgeable than the editor, but the editor has final say.

One remedy for such snafus is simply closer collaboration between reporters and the copy desk. In my decade in a daily newsroom, I never understood why this was frowned upon. As an arts critic, I often knew more about what I was covering than the smart generalists on the copy desk. But for the writer to review the edits to his own copy was viewed at best as needless overkill, and at worst as selfish meddling.

Today, there's no denying the value of better and more open communication at every stage of the journalistic process -- between reporters and sources, writers and editors, newsrooms and the public. Any newsroom rule that gets in the way of that communication ought to be put out of its misery.

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