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December 05 2010


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


'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.

Sponsored post

November 01 2010


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!

October 27 2010


MediaBugs revamps its site with a new national focus

When it launched in public beta earlier this year, MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg’s Knight News Challenge-winning fact-checking project, was focused on correcting errors found in publications in the Bay Area. Today, though, Mediabugs.org has undergone a redesign — not just in its interface (“just the usual iterative improvements,” Rosenberg notes), but in its scope. Overnight, MediaBugs has gone national.

Part of the site’s initial keep-it-local logic was that, as a Knight winner, the project had to be small in scope. (The News Challenge stipulates that projects focus on “geographically defined communities,” although this year they’ve loosened up that rule a bit.) But part of it was also an assumption that community is about more than geography. “My original thesis was that, first of all, it would be valuable to work on a small scale in a specific metropolitan area,” Rosenberg told me — valuable not only in terms of developing personal relationships with editors who oversee their publications’ correction efforts, but also as a way to avoid becoming “this faceless entity: yet another thing on the web that was criticizing people in the newsrooms.”

And while the community aspect has paid off when it comes to newsroom dealings — Rosenberg and his associate director, Mark Follman, have indeed developed relationships that have helped them grow the project and the cause — MediaBugs has faced challenges when it comes to “community” in the broader sense. “It’s been an uphill battle just getting people to participate,” Rosenberg notes. Part of that is just a matter of people being busy, and MediaBugs being new, and all that. But another part of it is that so much of the stuff typical users consume each day is regional or national, rather than local, in scope. When he describes MediaBugs to people, Rosenberg notes, a typical response will be: “Great idea. Just the other day, I saw this story in the paper, or I heard this broadcast, where they got X or Y wrong.” And “invariably,” he says, “the X or Y in question is on a national political story or an international story” — not, that is, a local one.

Hence, MediaBugs’ new focus on national news outlets. “I thought, if that’s what people are more worked up about, and if that’s what they want to file errors for,” Rosenberg says, “we shouldn’t stand in their way.”

The newly broadened project will work pretty much like the local version did: The site is pre-seeded (with regional and national papers, magazines, and even the websites of cable news channels), and it will rely on users to report errors found in those outlets and others — expanding, in the process, the MediaBugs database. (Its current data set includes not only a list of media organizations, their errors, and those errors’ correction status, but also, helpfully, information about outlets’ error-correction practices and processes.)

For now, Rosenberg says, the feedback loop informing news organizations of users’ bug reports, which currently involves Rosenberg or Follman contacting be-bugged organizations directly, will remain intact. But it could — and, Rosenberg hopes, it will — evolve to become a more self-automated system, via an RSS feed, email feed, or the like. “There isn’t really that much of a reason for us to be in the loop personally — except that, at the moment, we’re introducing this strange new concept to people,” Rosenberg notes. “But ultimately, what this platform should really be is a direct feedback loop where the editors and the people who are filing bug reports can just resolve them themselves.” One of the inspirations for MediaBugs is the consumer-community site Get Satisfaction, which acts as a meeting mechanism for businesses and the customers they serve. The site provides a forum, and it moderates conversations; ultimately, though, its role is to be a shared space for dialogue. And the companies themselves — which have a vested interest in maintaining their consumers’ trust — do the monitoring. For MediaBugs, Rosenberg says, “that’s the model that we would ultimately like.”

To get to that point — a point, Rosenberg emphasizes, that at the moment is a distant goal — the MediaBugs infrastructure will need to evolve beyond MediaBugs.org. “As long as we’re functioning as this website that people have to go to, that’s a limiting factor,” Rosenberg notes. “We definitely want to be more distributed out at the point where the content is.” For that, the project’s widget — check it out in action on Rosenberg’s Wordyard and on (fellow Knight grantee site) Spot.us — will be key. Rosenberg is in talks with some additional media outlets about integrating the widget into their sites (along the lines of, for example, of the Connecticut Register-Citizen’s incorporation of a fact-checking mechanism into its stories); but the discussions have been slow-going. “I’m still pretty confident that, sooner or later, we’ll start to see the MediaBugs widget planted on more of these sites,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s not anything that’s happening at any great speed.”

For now, though, Rosenberg will have his hands full with expanding the site’s scope — and with finding new ways to realize the old idea that, as he notes, “shining any kind of light on a subject creates its own kind of accountability.” And it’ll be fascinating to see what happens when that light shifts its gaze to the national media landscape. “That dynamic alone, I think, will help some of the publications whose sites are doing a less thorough job with this stuff to get their act together.”

July 29 2010


Bloomberg Circles the Wagons on Misleading Gulf-Spill Poll

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?


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 14 2010


Help MediaBugs Make News Sites Track, Correct Errors

Imagine you're sitting at the back of a classroom. The lecture is on a fascinating topic -- the American Civil War, say. The professor has started a riveting back-and-forth with students in the front about the Union's initial motivations for fighting. The professor says, "And then Harriet Jacobs wrote 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' which galvanized many northerners in the cause of abolishing slavery. What role do you think Jacobs' book played?"

You cock your head. Harriet Jacobs? It was Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin." You raise your hand to ask for a clarification, but the back-and-forth between the professor and students rolls on; the students debate Jacobs' impact, reinforcing the error. The professor is not calling on you, let alone seeing you -- and Jacobs' name is now forever linked in a dozen students' minds with the wrong book.

This is a light illustration of what can happen when errors of fact are made and reinforced, but it's light only because it's fleeting and somewhat contained. On a news website, however, an uncorrected error can be persistent, countlessly recited, and linked to by a thousand pages. It's a big problem. Error tracking and correction, as Mark Follman and Scott Rosenberg at MediaBugs argue in their new survey and report this week, is a central pillar of the public's trust in news organizations. But thus far online, news organizations are failing to buttress that pillar:

The results of MediaBugs' first survey of Bay Area media-correction practices show that 21 out of 28 news sites examined -- including many of the region's leading daily newspapers and broadcast news outlets -- provide no corrections link on their websites' home pages and article pages. The websites for 17 of the 28 news organizations examined have no corrections policy or substantive corrections content at all.

Sites that do offer corrections-related content frequently make it relatively difficult to find: It is located two or three obscure clicks into the site, or requires visitors to use the site's search function. Once located, the corrections content is, in most cases, poorly organized and not easily navigated.

The Price of Uncorrected Errors

MediaBugs has already made hundreds of corrections happen. But when you're an engaged citizen, seeing an error online and not being able to suggest a correction is like sitting at the back of a classroom, helpless, as your fellow students learn and repeat the wrong thing. You feel somehow lesser, that you're both ignored and ignorant.

That feeling not only breeds mistrust but resentment -- a feeling that the professor or editor must think they know everything, that they don't need you. Yet all they have to do is admit they are human, that corrections are needed and should be easily submitted, tracked, and publicized. That people sometimes make mistakes.

So help MediaBugs fix the news. Browse bugs, report bugs, and above all, bug your local newspaper editors to make it easier to report online errors directly to them.

July 13 2010


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.


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!

April 20 2010


MediaBugs, the Knight-funded error tracker, launches its public beta

Have you ever come across an obvious error in a piece of journalism, only to feel you had no way to fix it? Then today’s your day: MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg’s Knight News Challenge-winning project, has just moved into its public-beta testing phase. In other words: Ladies and gentlemen, have at those errors.

MediaBugs — per the site’s FAQ, “a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed” — has been in development, and then in closed-beta mode, for the past several months. (For more background on the project, by the way, see this interview that we conducted with Rosenberg just after he won his $335,000 Knight grant last year, as well as Poynter’s nicely contextualized treatment of the launch.)

In the closed beta, “we’ve been in this very controlled part of the tests, which was mostly about fixing technical problems,” Rosenberg told me. It was about “shaking down our own bugs.”

Now, though, it’s about ceding control of the platform to MediaBugs’ intended users. “Our big challenge now, once we do this, is to just see what kinds of things people are most ‘bugged’ about,” Rosenberg says. It could be small, practical items; it could be copy errors; it could be bigger-picture, controversial ideas. “I’m actually kind of fascinated just to sit back and see, once we make this available, what people end up entering.”

If the most recent bugs reported are any indication, the “what people end up entering” could be a wide range of errors both specific and conceptual. Some of the latest:

Bug #248: Wrong figure used for SF school cutbacks
Bug #243: Redundant usage of “been” in Daily Cal
Bug #238: iPad sales figures mischaracterized (reported by Dan Gillmor)
Bug #232: Controversial remarks by S.F. police chief — what remarks?

MediaBugs has also received off-topic errors, like the “Error of Omission” cited in Bug #173: NY Times misrepresents Dartmouth health-care study? (It’s been found “off-topic” because, at this point, the platform is requesting bugs seen only in Bay Area media organizations.)

But those off-topic errors are things Rosenberg and his staff (currently consisting of associate director Mark Follman) will have to deal with as they enter into public beta. MediaBugs is a platform rather than a program; given that, its success will depend not only on whether, but also (and also more interestingly) on how people use it.

One example that emerged recently: In its listing for the play “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews,” the East Bay Express (the Oakland-area weekly) printed the wrong theater name. “On the one hand, from an editorial perspective, it’s not like something where you’d call in the lawyers and get all worried,” Rosenberg notes of the minor bug; “on the other hand, if you were going to the show that night, and went to the wrong place, you might be a little upset.”

The Express’ listings page has a comments feature — and, indeed, someone had posted a comment on that page informing the paper’s editors and readers that the show’s venue was wrong. But that hadn’t been enough to get the fix in the listing itself. “People say, ‘Don’t we have this feedback loop already with our readers, through comments?’” Rosenberg says; but, then, he notes, “the comments are a mixed bag.” Even in that relatively rare circumstance when users go out of their way to report errors in stories’ comments sections, that’s no guarantee that journalists will see/react to/fix those errors. That’s one of Rosenberg’s arguments for MediaBugs in the first place.

Another is the ability to track errors as they’re noted and dealt with — which is both useful information generally, and a means of fostering accountability among error-making news organizations. The progression of the play venue’s error-tracking, as described on its MediaBugs page, went like this:

Bug Type: Simple Factual Error

Listing for Josh Kornbluth’s show “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” says the show is at the Jewish Community Center in SF, but actually it’s at The Jewish Theater in the Theater Artaud building.

There’s a comment pointing out the error but it’s still showing with the wrong info on the Express home page.

Supporting Information:

This is the page at the Jewish Theater’s site with the correct info:



Scott Rosenberg has contacted East Bay Express and received the following response.

East Bay Express’s managing editor said they’d correct this soon!

As of yesterday morning, Rosenberg had posted a comment on the bug’s web page. It said, simply: “This is fixed now!”

November 11 2009


How Do We Categorize All Journalistic Errors?

How many different kinds of errors is it possible for journalists to make? And how would you classify them or organize them into useful categories?

These questions are not my attempt to concoct a tactful paraphrase for "How many different ways is it possible to screw journalism up?" Rather, they represent one of the interesting issues we face as we move work on MediaBugs from the project-organizing phase to the "let's build something" stage.

There's a wealth of established practice in the software field for the kinds of data you can associate with a bug that a user finds in a program: how important the bug is, where the bug is located, how work on it fits in to the rest of the project, and so on. In software development, the purpose of the bug tracking system is, mostly, to define and organize the work of fixing bugs.

As we attempt to apply this model to the world of journalism, we find little in the way of similar established practices in our field. Individual news organizations sometimes track their own errors internally, but, as far as we've been able to determine, there is no common, industry-wide nomenclature for categorizing those errors -- no Library of Congress classification or Dublin Core metadata standard.

We're pretty much on our own. So we're doing our best to devise an initial set of categories, knowing that we'll probably need to revise them once we get real data from real users. (We've already drawn much from the invaluable work of my colleague Craig Silverman, in his book Regret the Error.)

Here's the list of categories we're playing with right now:

  • misquotation
  • mistaken identity
  • other simple factual error
  • ethical issue
  • faulty statistics or math
  • error of omission
  • typo, spelling, grammar
  • other

I'd love to hear what you think of this. Have we left out something obvious? Is this valuable or interesting?

Any set of categories will need to meet two goals:

  1. It should make sense to users who are trying to make quick decisions about categorizing the errors they're reporting.
  2. The breakdown of the total universe of errors that the list provides should ultimately be useful as we try to understand why errors happen, and how we can minimize them.

We know that there's no bright, shining line one can draw between errors of objective fact and subjective problems with media coverage. Errors don't fall into two distinct buckets labeled "fact" and "opinion"; there's a spectrum between the two.

We want MediaBugs to favor the "fact" side of that spectrum, so our choice of categories is weighted in that direction. I believe this is where we'll find the most common ground between journalists and the public, and make the fastest progress in our effort to bring the two together. We'll know a lot more soon!

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