That users saw these conversations as a part of the historical record was news to the editors at Boing Boing. “It has shown me what our readers, our community and even what people who don’t read us—people who can’t stand us—project on to us, and what they expect Boing Boing to be,” says Pescovitz.
“There’s a big difference between working for National Public Radio, producing something that is a news piece for that outlet, and writing for Boing Boing,” argues Jardin, who currently works as a commentator for NPR. “They are two entirely different kinds of entities, even though they have really big footprints culturally. Boing Boing is not trying to be CNN or NPR or the Library of Congress.”
But if there is a lower standard for sites like Boing Boing, what is the higher standard for newspapers online? The practice of deleting controversial stories without notice, known as “scrubbing,” is a new ethical challenge that newspapers have just begun to face. “It’s certainly a practice that surprisingly large media organizations are using,” says Craig Silverman, the editor of media corrections aggregator Regret the Error.
Newspapers still underestimate the speed and reach of their Web sites. It’s nearly impossible to remove an inaccurate story before it does any harm. Corrections, inevitably, are as important for a story that has been posted for half an hour as they are for a story in a print edition.
Just ask the New York Daily News, which, during April’s NHL playoffs, reported online that New York Ranger Sean Avery had been taken to the hospital, unconscious, not breathing, and in a state of cardiac arrest. Though wording of the story was changed to reflect the truth - Avery only had a lacerated spleen - the Daily News never ran a correction. And by the time the story was changed, a number of popular blogs had picked up the incorrect story.
“They reported that a guy was in danger of dying, and after they realized that they were completely wrong about it, they tried to pretend like it was never there,” Silverman says.
The hoary maxim that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth is out of bed has never been more true.
Any time content is removed from a credible site, Silverman expects some public attention devoted to what was removed and why. So should Boing Boing be treated as a credible site? It’s up for debate.
“Years ago, at a meeting, I referred to Boing Boing as an institution,” says Shirky. “[Co-editor] Cory Doctorow blew up at me and said ‘It’s not an institution. It’s just our blog.’ A lot of the charm of Boing Boing has been its relentlessly saying, this is stuff we’re obsessed with.”
Jardin echoes Doctorow’s feelings. “This is historically a personal blog. It may be a really high-traffic personal blog, and it may be a blog that is important to a lot of people - it’s certainly important to each of us - but at its heart it’s still a personal blog shared by a number of people.”
Still, Silverman and Shirky both consider the question of a site’s credibility to be an audience decision, not an editorial one. Blue takes a more rigid approach, choosing to hold all blogs written for the public to the highest journalistic standards. “I really believe in the concept of a permanent history and keeping a journal that is an accurate telling of history,” she says. “My site is a personal site, but it’s something in the public sphere, something of permanent record.” Blue is quick to say that many of her posts reflect personal opinions that have changed over time. She claims never to have deleted a post—even the ones she posted while drunk.
Moving forward, Boing Boing’s editors promise to involve readers in the archiving practices of the site. Shirky, who is one of those readers, offers this: “I think it would have been optimal if whatever problem the editors had with Violet Blue had led to an editor’s note, a strike-through, or just a sense that ‘we stopped posting her stuff a year ago,’ that she’s persona non grata, and simply letting the other stuff go.”
Silverman hopes that Boing Boing begins to conform to the standard blogging practice of noting how and when a post is updated. And the Boing Boing commenters continue to wage a major debate on new media archival ethics.
“I’m not quite ready to say that I’m glad this took place, but it raised these questions that are fundamentally new questions,” said co-editor Pescovitz. “I’m glad that the discussion is happening on our site.”