Once upon a time in journalism, an error was a mistake in a story, and a correction was a notice published after the fact fixing the error. This kind of errror and correction still exists, but in the new world of news the error/correction cycle keeps mutating into interesting new forms.
Consider these two recent examples, one involving the Wall Street Journal and Twitter, the other involving Daily Kos and its polling program.
On Monday morning, decisions were pouring out of the U.S. Supreme Court and keeping reporters who deal with it very much on their toes. I noticed a flurry of comments on Twitter suggesting that the court had struck down Sarbanes-Oxley, the corporate-fraud bill passed nearly a decade ago in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. That struck me as odd, and so I clicked around till I found an AP story about the ruling, but that piece reported that only one tiny provision of the law had been overruled.
Eventually I traced the source of this confusion back to a single tweet from the Wall Street Journal’s Twitter account, announcing “BREAKING: Supreme Court strikes down Sarbanes-Oxley.” Twelve minutes later the Journal tweeted, “Only part of law is affected. We’ll have more.” Another 13 minutes later, the Journal quoted Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion as saying that Sarbanes-Oxley “remains fully operative as law.” So in 25 minutes the Journal did a 180.
Now, anyone trying to post breaking news to a service like Twitter is going to make mistakes. If you followed the Journal’s stream it was evident that the paper had simply goofed in its first take. (Felix Salmon takes them to task here, and Zach Seward, the Journal staffer who was manning the paper’s tweet-stream, responds in the comments.) How should a news organization deal with such a goof?
I’ll give the Journal half-credit: they re-reported a more accurate version of the news quickly. Their staff was forthright in explaining the situation in public on the Web. And they didn’t take the cowardly memory-hole route of simply deleting the erroneous tweet.
What the Journal never did, though, was simple admit the error as an error. This should not be so hard! The moment it became clear that the tweet was a mistake, the paper should have posted something along the lines of: “We goofed with our previous notice that Sarb-Ox was struck down”, along with a link to the tweet-in-error.
There is no good argument for not doing this. Embarrasment? Forget it, this is the ephemeral world of Twitter. Legal repercussions? If the paper is worried about lawsuits, it shouldn’t be attempting to distribute breaking news via Twitter at all. Reputation? That’s better protected by admitting error than by driving past it.
I think the Journal’s handling of this mistake reflects the imperfect efforts of an old-school newsroom to adapt its traditions to a new world. Next time something like this happens, and of course it will, let’s see how much the paper has learned.
For an example of how a new-school newsroom handles a much larger problem, take a look at Daily Kos’s dispute with the pollsters at Research 2000, which had been providing the popular liberal blog community with its own polling for some time.
A trio of “statistics wizards” uncovered some patterns in Research 2000’s data that suggested it was unreliable at best, fabricated at worst. Kos proprietor Markos Moulitsas didn’t just announce the problem; he published the entire statistics dissertation explaining the issue and posted a lengthy explanation of his own view of the affair.
The whole thing is highly embarrassing for Daily Kos. You can bet that any conventional news hierarchy would have done its best to hide the evidence, minimize the damage, and “stand by our story” as much as possible — particularly in light of the likely lawsuits down the road.
Kos instead throws the whole affair onto the table and declares war on his former polling partners. It’s not pretty, but in its own way it’s admirable.
[Cross-posted to the MediaBugs blog]