But there are lessons here for error correction in the modern media world. As CJR’s Craig Silverman recently noted, with the old fact-checking systems more or less decimated, there’s an urgent need for news organizations to devise new internal strategies—and train their staff in them. That’s especially so when, as in a case like this, it’s easy to tap into Google and find “confirmation” for a claim that may not be true. (To be clear, there’s no evidence here that the AP and LAT have, compared to the rest of the industry, failed to do this. On this issue, these outlets performed better than many others.)
Silverman has also talked about the need to think of corrections as “content that can stand on its own,” so that they “truly become integrated within the river of news we hear so much about.”
That entails logistical innovations that would get corrections to readers in different ways. But it also entails, I think, publishing stories—not just on blogs, but also in newspapers and on TV—that aim to correct, or debunk, false memes that are getting widespread play from other news outlets.
As it happens, the Los Angeles Times itself recently published a story, headlined “Suspect in Northwest Airlines bomb plot had round-trip ticket,” that may have just that effect. Articles like this could be written in the wake of almost every attempted terrorist attack: as Sebastian Rotella, one of the reporters on the story, noted via e-mail, early coverage of these events is plagued by inaccuracy.
Rotella also said something else interesting: he and his colleague Peter Nicholas reported the story “because it was news, not with refutation in mind.” (Presumably the news hook was that White House officials were telling congressional aides that Abdulmutallab’s ticket was round-trip; Rotella didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up question.) In this case, the distinction may not matter much; the result was that a story with the correct information in its headline was published by a major newspaper and picked up by major aggregators. But to really get that river flowing in the right direction, a new mindset might help. Refutation can be news, too.