TBD and the Accuracy Boast

The aftermath of the typo heard 'round the world

It’s a rare and wonderful thing to see a news organization criticized for making too big of a deal about an error and correction made by one of its writers. The issue is usually the opposite—a call for transparency, rather than a plea to, well, shut up. But here we are, thanks to a now-famous correction published by D.C. news website TBD.com late last week:

This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.

TBD signaled back in the summer that it intended to have a unique approach by publishing a blog post prior to launch that outlined the site’s commitment to accuracy and corrections. As I noted in a column at the time, “TBD is trying to do things differently when it comes to local news, and it has already moved in that direction by being up front about how the site will manage corrections and fix mistakes.”

The above correction, and the way the site handled its popularity, seems to reinforce the TBD approach. Once the team realized they had a viral hit on their hands, the site went on to publish two blog posts (1, 2) that dealt with the correction and its impact. TBD folks have been talking about it on Twitter, and the offending blogger, Amanda Hess, was also featured on TBD’s “MoJo power half-hour” show to talk about her error. The blog posts emphasized that the correction demonstrated the site’s commitment to transparency. Our system works, they seemed to be saying. And whadya know, it’s also good for traffic.

It seems the TBD folks were a little too eager for some tastes. As Steve Buttry, the site’s director community engagement, outlined in one of TBD’s correction-related posts, John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News & Record, tweeted, “I appreciate @TBD’s correction, but the transparency argument seems a nice way to spin a typo.”

Chris Krewson, editor of Variety.com, tweeted that “it wasn’t the correction that bugged me. It was pious sanctimoniousness after.”

Moe Tkacik of the Washington City Paper also offered an acerbic, NSFW take that suggested the TBD folks were a little too full of themselves over their correction.

And a commenter also raised the valid point that TBD chose to forgo copy editors at this stage of its development. Buttry responded to the criticism, and his position is pretty well summarized by the headline on his post, “Yes, transparency can seem like boasting, but TBD favors transparency.”

TBD is being accused of what I previously termed the “accuracy boast.” As I outlined, the accuracy boast has been around for a long time:

The early English newspapers of the 17th century made a habit of printing fantastic tales about massive serpents or gigantic births, and they also spent time boasting about their commitment to truth and accuracy. Just like Us, they needed readers to buy their next issue and so credibility mattered. The Accuracy Boast — a strident, usually empty claim of credulity meant to reassure readers — is meant to vouch for the tales that lay within; it’s supposed to make readers feel better. Mostly, though, it comes off more as an exercise in self aggrandizement by the publication.

At the time I highlighted a boast from Lou Dobbs, who was still on CNN. When Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes confronted him with an incorrect stat he’d used on his show, Dobbs responded with, “Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it’s a fact.”

“You can’t tell me that. You did report it,” Stahl replied.

“I just did,” Dobbs said.

“How can you guarantee that to me?” Stahl asked

“Because I’m the managing editor. And that’s the way we do business. We don’t make up numbers, Lesley.”

I still cringe when I read that exchange. No need to explain why his numbers were correct or go back and check—if Dobbs read it off a teleprompter, it’s gold.

I didn’t get the same reaction when reading TBD’s offerings about its correction. In truth, journalism could do with a little more boasting about transparency. And by that I mean we should strive to have news organizations that put enough effort into implementing the concept that they feel justified in crowing about it.

The admirable thing about TBD’s boast—as opposed to an empty accuracy boast like Dobbs’s—is that it’s rooted in the admission of a mistake. It also stimulates discussion, such as the one that took place on Twitter between Buttry, Robinson and Krewson. If you’re going to boast about transparency, people are going to call you on it. The result is likely to test the limits of your commitment to the concept. It’s either deflating or reaffirming. Either way, that’s a good thing if you’re willing to engage, listen and learn.

The problem we have today is a lack of transparency from news organizations. So if TBD wants to blog about all of the “Likes” and tweets its corrections received, put the offending blogger on air to talk about the mistake and its reaction, and blog about the same, I say good on them. They’re responding to what other people have responded to. They’re explaining why and how Hess added the correction, rather than just have her fix the typo or scrub it.

Of course, this kind of boasting involves risk. If TBD should fall down on the job in terms of corrections or find itself committing a litany of silly, embarrassing, or obvious typos, the copy editor argument will once again rear its head. Rightly so. And if TBD isn’t as open about its failings in the future, this week’s correction will seem like a link-baiting anomaly. That’s fair game, and I suspect Buttry et al. agree.

The key is that they continue to engage when there are errors or issues that aren’t quite so amusing, or good for traffic. That’s the true test of transparency, and it will ultimately determine whether this was empty boasting or an example of their overall approach.

Correction of the Week

“An article in the Sept. 1 El Paso Times stated that Dallas Nights Country Saloon employee Joshua Kennon was engaged in “sexual activity” with a woman and allegedly intoxicated at the time of his arrest. According to an affidavit, he was “making out” with the woman while he was allegedly intoxicated. Also, although the saloon was cited twice for liquor violations, those violations were later dismissed, according to bar owner David Cooper.” - El Paso Times

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star.