regret the error

Scrubbing Away Their Sins

You can't disappear your errors online
December 5, 2008

We used to be able to throw out the news; to disappear it.

The morning paper would find its way into the trash. A radio or television newscast would float off into the ether. It’s a cliché to say it by now, but the Web has changed that.

Articles and broadcasts now reside in online archives, are quoted or embedded on blogs, and republished on other news sites. Google keeps a snapshot of the original page cached on its servers. The new permanence of news makes it more important than ever to initially get a story right, lest an error rocket around the world. But when prevention fails, a suitable correction must follow. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Some news organizations choose to “scrub” their errors. The New York Daily News scrubbed away an entire story this year after the paper erroneously reported about the injuries suffered by an NHL player. A similar thing happened on November 29 when Wales Online, a site built on content from several Welsh newspapers, published a story headlined, “We thought we were safe… then CNN stepped in!” The article was a wire story from the U.K’s Press Association. It began:

A South Wales couple caught in the Mumbai terror attacks claimed last night that CNN put their lives at risk by broadcasting where they were. Lynne and Kenneth Shaw, of Penarth, warned that terrorists were listening in to the media to pinpoint Western victims. Mrs. Shaw claimed the American cable TV channel had broadcast details of where they were at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel…

As Amy Gahran of Poynter noted in a blog post this week, the story was also picked up by other news outlets. Here’s how Gahran summarized the cause of the mistake:

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According to CNN spokesperson Nigel Pritchard, when the Press Association contacted CNN for comment on the Shaw’s allegations, CNN issued a “holding statement” while they reviewed all their broadcast and streamed video from the relevant parts of the crisis. In the meantime, the Press Association account ran. When CNN found nothing to corroborate the Shaws’ alleged statements, they contacted the Press Association to refute those allegations. Shortly afterward, the Press Association story was retracted.

Gahran’s Poynter post also busted Wales Online for removing the story after it was revealed to have been false. Scrubbing usually refers to the practice of fixing an error in an online article without including a correction. Like the Daily News example, this was an extreme version of scrubbing. Wales Online decided to try and make the entire story disappear.

The site eventually published this correction on a different page:

ON SATURDAY, the Western Mail and South Wales Echo ran a story detailing how Lynne and Kenneth Shaw, of Penarth, claimed broadcaster CNN had put their lives at risk by detailing their location during the recent terror attacks in Mumbai.

The story was taken from the Press Association news agency, who have since stated:

“Press Association would like to make clear that the interviewee’s allegations that CNN broadcast details compromised her and her husband’s safety have since been clarified by the interviewee’s husband to Press Association as ‘not valid’.”

But the URL for the original, offending story doesn’t include the correction. It’s now just a blank page. Wales Online has attempted to disappear the story, and they’ve done a poor job of it. For example, Gahran noted that the original story still appears in the site’s archives, but the correction doesn’t show up in the same search string. The lesson is that’s it’s nearly impossible to erase erroneous online reporting. Which means you have to do an even better job of correcting it.

Wales Online’s decision to remove its original story complicates the correction process. How are readers supposed to know the article was corrected (or, in fact, retracted)? They have to get lucky and come across the correction, which carries the bland headline “Lynne and Kenneth Shaw.” And what of all the people following links from other websites to the original article? How are they supposed to find the correction? And how will those sites know the article was corrected?

Corrections only work if they are easily accessible and written in a way that clearly communicate both the error and the correct information. In the online world, a correction must also exist within the context of the offending article.

News organizations should also make an effort to spread their corrections to any sites that re-reported the incorrect information. That’s the responsible thing to do. The reporting and publishing process doesn’t end when an article goes online; that’s often the starting point. We’re responsible for following up on, and correcting, what we publish.

Online errors don’t disappear like yesterday’s print edition. News organizations need to recognize what the new permanence means for errors and corrections, and act accordingly.

Correction of the Week

“Bad conduct: Charles Mackerras was not born in Australia (Emma hits heights, Today, page 6, December 1). The eminent orchestra conductor was born to Australian parents in 1925 in musical-sounding Schenectady, New York. Apropos of nothing, Schenectady was where, in 1886, the Machine Works company was set up by Thomas Edison, who also knew a thing or two about conductors.” – West Australian

Too Good to Check

This correction was published this week in the Kansas City Star:

A quote in The Buzz on Nov. 28 that was attributed to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was actually from humorist Andy Borowitz.

Anyone familiar with Borowitz’s work knows that he specializes in writing satirical (meaning fake) news stories for his Web site, the Borowitz Report. Obviously, the person responsible for the Star article was not aware of this. They plucked a made-up quote from one of Borowitz’s reports and presented it as the real McCoy. Here’s the quote in question, which was attributed to author Doris Kearns Goodwin:

“Every time someone says ‘team of rivals,’ I sell another book on Amazon,” she said. “Team of rivals, team of rivals, team of rivals.”

As of this writing, the online version of the article remains uncorrected.

Parting Shot

“The Nov. 29 obituary of Robert M. White II mistakenly referred to him as “Mr. Smith” on two occasions.” – Washington Post

Craig Silverman is currently BuzzFeed's media editor, and formerly a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.