behind the news

If a Correction Falls in the Woods…

Slate’s pot-kettle-black takedown of Politico
July 23, 2010

On Tuesday, Slate published an analysis spotlighting twelve Politico articles in a recent three week period where notable revisions, overwhelmingly to correct errors of fact, were made without a formal correction notice.

The article, by Jeremy Singer-Vine, a 23 year old contributor, sought to answer a simple question: How often does Politico delete or change information in its articles without notifying readers?

The question came to his mind three weeks ago, when Politico, writing on the fallout from Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone profile of General McChrystal, ran a story containing the claim that Hastings, a freelancer, would be more likely to write a damaging article than an access-dependent Pentagon beat reporter.

Rereading Politico’s article the next day, I pointed out that those sentences had disappeared, without any notice to readers addressing the change.

Politico declined to comment on why the sentences went missing, which naturally led to speculation (including in a widely noted post by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen) as to what laid behind the deletion. Tim Grieve, Politico’s deputy managing editor, soon wrote Rosen to say that the sentences had been removed as the article had been updated simply because the article was rewritten many times as the quick-moving story evolved.

That episode, and Singer-Vine’s article inspired by it, point to a very live issue in online journalism. The internet, where words are set not in paper and ink but in mutable zeros and ones, has exploded the possibilities for journalists needing to correct mistakes, rework words, or update conclusions. But there are vastly different ideas and procedures in practice that grapple with how to carry into the digital age traditions of correction developed by the print press, and how and when to present notice or preserve a record—for accuracy, transparency and accountability’s sake—of fixed errors or other changes made after publication.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Singer-Vine’s analysis of Politico’s unacknowledged corrections relied on a clever computer program of his design, which, for the last three weeks, had been crawling Politico’s main page archiving copies of recently posted articles, comparing versions across time and tracking changes.

The script didn’t look for unmade corrections or standing errors; it wasn’t a fact checker. All it did was note whether the article had changed since publication. Singer-Vine then culled through the articles that had such changes, put aside routine evolving news updates, smoothed over grammar flubs and the like to determine where the changes had been significant, and had been made without a written corrections notice.

A handy sidebar spotlights 12 articles—what Slate identified as “The Best of Politico’s Sneaky Edits.” Among them are a series of revisions to Robert Byrd’s obituary that took four tries to correctly peg the dates he chaired the Senate’s appropriations committee, a piece where an author got a congressman’s age wrong, and so on.

The piece wraps up with this cutting kicker:

Politico seems to have rewritten the old wire-service motto. It’s no longer, “Get it first, but first get it right.” For Politico, it’s more like, “Get it first, and if you don’t get it quite right, quietly change it later.”

And here’s where things turn for the worse. What wasn’t spotlighted in Slate’s article was Slate’s own correction policy, which was disclosed only in a pop-up box to readers who let their mouse hover over a small grey plus sign, well over a dozen paragraphs into the story. An excerpt:

Unless we notice the error ourselves and the article is less than 24 hours old, we correct and acknowledge all factual errors.

Let’s rephrase that: Slate’s correction policy allows the site to make corrections without telling readers that anything was wrong, as long as they do so within 24 hours, and as long as Slate notices the error themselves.

And, yes, only one of the highlighted revisions caught by Singer-Vine’s script likely took place later than 24 hours after its original posting. Assuming Politico’s staffers noted the errors themselves, revising them without notifying readers with a printed correction would have been perfectly by the book—by Slate’s book, that is.

While Singer-Vine quoted Politico editor in chief John Harris saying that he wasn’t sure Politico needs to have a “black-and-white [corrections] policy,” Grieve said that there was in fact a simple rule. And in one of this tale’s many ironies, such post-publication corrections without notification are not, in fact, acceptable by that standard.

“When we make factual mistakes, our policy is to make corrections and note those mistakes,” says Tim Grieve. “And that’s not Slate’s policy.”

“There’s sort of an existential question here. What’s worse? To have the right policy and fail to live up to it, or to have the wrong policy and tweak someone else for failing to live up to [their] own policy,” asks Grieve.

Grieve wasn’t willing to comment on the record on precisely how the unnoted corrections captured by Slate made it into print without notice, and therefore in violation of Politico’s policy.

“It’s entirely possible that updates get made where editors don’t see a specific factual error got changed,” says Grieve.

However it happened, if you assume Singer-Vine trained his scripts on the site in a typical period, a little back of the envelope shows that his findings could just be the tip of the iceberg. Slate’s corpus only included 384 stories that had been linked from the site’s front page. Grieve says Politico moves about 1,500 stories a month, not including blog posts. A speculative mash up of the numbers would suggest a rate of perhaps forty stealth corrections at Politico each month.

Grieve says the site has no plans to go back and try to identify other places where corrections were made without notifications, and wasn’t sure if such a search would be technically possible.

“At this point, I’d like to keep the focus on going forward and covering Washington the way we do,” says Grieve. “That’s where we should put our focus, rather than a massive retrospective search.”

Grieve did say that since the Slate piece, editors were reiterating to reporters that if their piece required a factual correction that they must let an editor know, and that a notice of the change must be posted.

Indeed, after being notified by Slate about the dozen undisclosed revisions, Politico added notifications about the weeks or days old changes to ten articles. Of the other two articles discussed in the sidebar, but to which Politico declined to add notifications, one tracked the evolution of some rather garbled, imprecise, but essentially correct language describing two House G.O.P. efforts to repeal the health care bill or portions thereof. (The other spotted a case where Politico dialed back the strength of an editorial conclusion that Al Gore’s sexual assault accuser had “a history of making accusations of unwanted sexual advances.”)

Of the straight, previously quietly fixed factual errors, according to Singer-Vine, only six of these corrections were added by the time he filed his copy, including the sidebar, which noted where they had and hadn’t yet been added. All ten were up by the time the article went live. This caused Politico—which was clearly none to happy with the article—to demand (and get) corrections on the sidebar.

Michael Newman, the Slate editor responsible for the piece and sidebar, told me that he regretted not checking to see if additional notifications had been added between filing and publication.

“We should have checked it again,” Newman said.

Politico also complained and earned a correction from Slate on their inaccurate description of an earlier, unrelated, correction Politico had actually run on the Gore article, and on a misquote that miffed suffixes when quoting from Grieve’s June email to Rosen. (Singer-Vine says brackets were dropped from an early draft.)

“As long as were in the universe of being tweaked for small corrections, I think you have to be squeaky clean,” says Grieve.

But the back and forth on inaccuracies in Singer-Vine’s story as originally published distracts from the question of how Slate cooked up a piece so seemingly blind to its own corrections policy, and so open to a charge of hypocrisy.

“When I started this piece, I was under the belief that we corrected all our errors,” says Singer-Vine, who joined Slate last May as an intern and currently works for the site somewhere between half- and full-time, mixing editorial and technical work.

And that’s what Singer-Vine thought when he designed the computer program, which tracked Politico’s changes every hour for the first 24 hours, before tailing off into a daily check.

And that’s what he thought when he wrote the piece.

He says he learned about his own site’s 24 hour notification free window from Newman as they volleyed a near final draft back and forth, within hours of the article going live.

“It was the final edit, or the second to final edit,” says Singer-Vine. “It should have set off more alarm bells, but it didn’t.”

Newman feels similarly. According to him, Singer-Vine’s filed copy used the plus sign pop up to link Slate’s correction policy, and made no mention of the 24 hour window. Newman says that getting a complete, accurate description of Slate’s disclosure policy into the plus sign pop-up distracted him from the greater question of what their own policy meant to the story’s thrust and framing.

“We were criticizing someone else’s corrections policy, so I felt I had to accurately describe our policy. That would have been the first step. And I did it. So good job, Michael. The second step would be ‘How would what we’re pointing out look under our policy?’ And I didn’t do that well. Or at all. So bad job, Michael,” said Newman.

“We were sort of calling them out for something we do,” says Newman, adding simply that it “was bad editing.”

Politico’s complaints convinced Slate to add this “update” to the piece:

[Update, July 20, 11:35 p.m.: As Politico‘s editors also pointed out to us, many of the changes Politico made to its stories would have been permitted under Slate’s own corrections policy. Under Slate’s policy, we do not notify readers about minor corrections that we ourselves catch within 24 hours of publication.]

There was no mention in the original plus sign pop-up, as there is in this update, that the correction had to be “minor” to escape without notification in the first 24 hours. And in fact, according to Newman, there’s no description of the 24-hour rule anywhere else on Slate’s site, save Tuesday’s plus sign pop-up. Slate’s weekly corrections page, which is offered up in the pop up as the repository of the site’s corrections “policy,” merely notes that the site makes corrections, provides an email address where requests for corrections can be submitted.

“The word ‘policy,’ we can debate,” says Newman. “I think what we have there is a corrections policy.”

Politico isn’t satisfied with Slate’s response to their complaints.

“We have asked them to either take down or amend the last paragraph of the story”—the one with the quietly-change-it-later jab—“which is really a hypocritical cheap shot for them to take,” says Grieve.*

Newman, having added the update, is ready to leave it as it is.

“It’s more of a characterization of things than a fact,” says Newman. “That’s one of these things that I’m not sure is correctable.”

CORRECTION (12:40): Ack. Due to a typo, this quote was originally and incorrectly rendered “cheap shop.” Not the sort of thing that most people think you’d need to run a printed correction for, but considering the circumstances…

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.