One of the long-standing accuracy debates in journalism centers around whether you should repeat the original error in a correction. I examined this issue two years ago, and I support repeating the mistake in order to ensure people understand the nature of the error.
That issue will likely never be settled, as different news organizations embrace different policies for different reasons. It would be a stretch to suggest that this is a raging debate, but it’s a precursor to what has emerged as the urgent accuracy debate of the moment.
This past weekend, several major media organizations wrongly reported and tweeted that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died in the Saturday shooting incident in Tucson. (For a full timeline of the incorrect tweets and the discussion around them, see this post on RegretTheError.com; I also collected notable after-the-fact commentary in this post.)
Put simply, the question is this: To delete or not to delete? Should news organizations and reporters delete tweets after it becomes clear they’re in error? In the wake of incorrect tweets on Saturday, different news organizations and reporters came down on different side of this debate. Below is a summary of the arguments offered for and against deletion, along with an outline of a proposed Twitter function that could help enable better corrections on the service.
According to some accounts, NPR was the first news organization to report that Rep. Giffords had died. Its reporting was also shared on Twitter. Andy Carvin, who oversees social media and community at NPR, sent out the errant tweets, and he later explained why he chose not to delete them:
With around 2 million people following @nprnews and @nprpolitics, deleting the original tweet wouldn’t have altered the fact that many of those followers had already seen the mistaken tweet and retweeted it. So based on that reasoning, I decided to be transparent about the mistake and not try to hide it.
Was that a good or a bad decision? At the time I felt it was a reasonable decision, given the circumstances, and still feel comfortable with the decision. I can imagine if I had deleted it, we’d be reading news stories and blog posts today about NPR trying to cover our tracks on Twitter.
WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, also explained why it chose to keep the incorrect tweet intact:
We have decided NOT to delete the erroneous tweet, because it serves as part of the narrative of this story. Facts can change fast when news is breaking, and that leads to errors. We need to own the error, not hide from it. But we also need to rectify the error and explain ourselves to people who trust us. Deleting the tweet would do more to harm trust than perserving [sic] it would do to harm truth.
On the other side of the coin are CNN, Reuters, and the PBS NewsHour, all of which deleted their Giffords-has-died tweets. Steve Safran at Lost Remote summarized the arguments in favor of deletion:
One argument in favor is to stop or slow the retweeting. But this is difficult, if not impossible. And it is tempting but impractical to call for a squad of people to monitor tweets. For hours after it was reported she was alive, people kept discovering the original tweet that she was dead, retweeting it to their friends without seeing the update. In several cases, the retweet of the incorrect report came three or more hours after the report first spread
I also heard from Teresa Gorman, who does social media and online engagement for the PBS NewsHour. She explained why they deleted:
@craigsilverman in all transparency, we did tweet NPR’s news, but I chose to delete it because it kept getting retweeted hours later.
I weighed in on this question via Twitter:
I’m not in favor of news orgs deleting incorrect tweets. Take time to push out correct info & contact RTers to alert to new info.
So you know where I stand. In addition to the reasons cited by Carvin and WBUR, I’d add that the standard for fixing errors online is to add a correction to the same piece of content. (Scrubbing is unethical.) Since tweets are self contained, you can’t go back and add a correction to a message, which is part of the challenge of correcting information on Twitter.