June 22, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In yesterday’s New York Times eXaminer, editor Chris Spannos examined the New York Times‘ changing story on Julian Assange’s application for political asylum. Spannos highlights two vital journalistic issues: media bias and editorial revision. The first is far more consequential, but the second remains both problematic and underappreciated. And as Spannos’ reporting demonstrates, editorial revisions often are the result of bias. Story changes in some cases may be attempts to eliminate language that reflects an editorial bias, or they may be efforts to solidify a point-of-view in a story that the paper presents as straight news.
We can all appreciate the fact that 24/7 news reporting creates increased pressure to get a story out nearly as it happens. Inevitably in a time crunch, “mistakes will be made.” Obviously, newspaper editors have a responsibility to correct those errors as they are discovered. But if the first draft contains errors, updates must do more than make corrections; they must tell the reader the story has changed and they must – at least in general terms – tell the reader how the story has changed. Bloggers – whom Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter James Risen said should “do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas” – regularly inform their readers when they alter their posts with updates and corrections. It is not rocket science and can be done while wearing any attire, even fancy New York Times duds.
The New York Times seldom informs the reader of its changes, even on major stories like the Assange story Spannos highlights. On my Website Reality Chex, I link to New York Times stories every day, and I generally go back to look for updates on stories that are likely to develop. The changes in Times stories are often so radical – from the headlines to the ledes to the detailed content – that the only way I can tell a later draft is “the same story” I had linked hours earlier is that the URL – Web address – has not changed. As an alternative to the ever-changing narrative, some news outlets, like the Guardian and Al Jazeera, increasingly rely on liveblogs for developing stories, later publishing traditional top-down reports that provide overviews and recap developments. Although the New York Times occasionally liveblogs breaking stories – political debates and election returns come to mind – that does not deter them from regularly making significant, unacknowledged alterations to their regular online stories.
The Times‘ executive editor Jill Abramson, shortly before she took over the helm, claimed that acknowledging updates was way too difficult: it was unrealistic, she said, to expect the paper to preserve an “immutable, permanent record of everything we have done.” This of course is an argument in extremis: citing an onerous standard to claim that a less stringent standard also is unrealistic. (Abramson, by the way, helped run the Times‘ online operations, and as such was most likely instrumental in making the decision to revise without comment earlier versions of stories. With the knowledge she should have gained running the day-to-day operation, she has no excuse for pretending it is too difficult to properly update online stories.)
It turns out that even Abramson’s argument in extremis is insupportable, as one of Abramson’s former reporters, along with two associates, has proved. A new Website, NewsDiffs, “allows you to compare evolving versions of online news articles after they are published.” Currently, the site is tracking the New York Times, CNN and Politico. To track changes in the stories, NewsDiffs uses “version control” software. Probably the crack programmers at the New York Times have heard of it. They should have. Journalist Scott Rosenberg wrote about “versioning” or “diffs” two years ago. “Most software developers use it continuously in all their work. Versioning is common in the culture of computing because it’s the sort of thing computers do cheaply and well. You can see it at work on the ‘view history’ tab of every page in Wikipedia.” Rosenberg proposed that versioning be “the model for how we present the evolution of news stories on the Web.” He added,
… once it’s incorporated into a newsroom’s content management software, it’s probably going to save time presently wasted on posting jerry-rigged correction notices. It can be presented unobtrusively, so that the vast majority of readers who don’t care will never need to see it…. In journalism, versioning can be valuable as a foundation for trust. It’s a smart way to solve the dilemma that … everyone … faces in trying to keep information up to date and correct small errors without seeming to be playing fast and loose with the public record. Public versioning for every news story: it’s time! Otherwise, we’re going to be wasting a lot of time struggling to pinion dynamic information on static pages, and accusing one another of tampering with history.
It is true that most readers don’t care about minor tweaks to news stories that merely add clarity or improve stylistic lapses. But when does a “stylistic tweak” become a substantive change of meaning? NewsDiffs lets the reader decide. But if the New York Times wants to hold itself up as the paragon of journalistic excellence, it should also be willing to make those calls by linking to earlier versions of a story and perhaps by briefly characterizing the differences between the current and earlier versions. Instead, the Times simply overwrites the earlier versions with no acknowledgment of any changes, effectively making all of its revisions invisible, except those few that the Times decides rise to the level of “corrections.”
As Chris Spannos documents, the Times goes far beyond stylistic tinkering in its secret revisions. That kind of tinkering seems to be SOP at the Times. I recall commenting on a New York Times “Caucus” post about 18 months ago. In my comment, I cited a line from the post. Later that day, I wanted to use that same line to comment on a related Times op-ed column. But when I went back to retrieve it, the line was gone from the Caucus story. Moreover, the gist of the Caucus post had changed completely, and the “new and improved” post no longer supported my point. What did survive was my earlier comment, which looked pretty foolish since it remarked on something that wasn’t there and was not even implied in the revised post.
It gets worse. In an op-ed piece published a year ago, New York Times public editor Art Brisbane highlighted a few major disappearances from the New York Times: one story that went into the ether was a column by opinion-writer Ross Douthat about Libya. The column appeared online, but when the news broke about Osama bin Laden’s killing, Douthat wrote a new column about bin Laden, and the Times ditched his original piece on Libya. “Gone forever,” Brisbane remarked. More serious still: Times online published a long piece about the housekeeper with whom Arnold Schwarzenegger had a long affair and a child. Readers complained to the Times that the story – which described the woman’s neighborhood – invaded her family’s privacy. So the Times just replaced the story with a completely different one, although the original story showed up in the dead-tree edition of the Santa Rosa paper owned by the New York Times Company.
Brisbane did not buy Jill Abramson’s “too difficult” cop-out. “It’s problematic when content just disappears,” he wrote. He goes on to say,
My preference would be that The Times do more to document and retain significant changes and corrections…. It has a policy against removing material from its archive (except in rare cases), on the principle that the record should be preserved. The Times should clarify its policy on replacing stories online, which looks like de facto removal to me, and offer the public a better-documented archive that includes all significant versions and all corrections. A clear policy statement on this, posted online, would make it easier for readers to understand The Times’s approach.
Brisbane’s suggestions are common sense, and consistent with what journalists Scott Rosenberg and Mark Follman suggested in 2010. Their suggestions would not be all that difficult to put into practice, and in view of the Times‘ penchant for constantly updating major news stories, a program to “document and retain significant changes and corrections” would provide invaluable clarity to what is now a very murky process. A year ago, Art Brisbane learned that “tracking changes is not a priority at the Times.” Clearly, it still isn’t. But as Scott Rosenberg wrote a year before Jill Abramson pooh-poohed the importance of maintaining an archive of overwritten stories, “It’s time for news websites to move this issue to the top of their priority lists and get it taken care of. They can do this, in most cases, with just a few changes to site templates and some small improvements in editing procedures.”
The sloppiness that Abramson excuses diminishes the credibility of the New York Times. As Rosenberg wrote elsewhere in 2010, “Nothing presses the public’s Orwell alarm faster than altering a published or posted text without copping to the revision. If the text is the subject of criticism, even worse.”
Art Brisbane – who is leaving the New York Times at the end of the summer – still cares. In a two-part tweet dated June 18, Brisbane links to NewsDiffs.org and writes that “It’s very interesting to see different iterations of articles throughout the process.”
Yes, it is.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com where she usually cops to her own mistakes.