Fixing Old News: How About a Corrections Wiki?

NYtimes.com
Any news org should be able to do more with corrections than this…
Denver Post 8/30/2007, p. 2B
Or this… What? You can’t see the corrections on that page?
Denver Post 8/30/2007, p. 2B
…Look way down here in the corner

Even the best journalists and editors sometimes make mistakes. Or sometimes new information surfaces that proves old stories — even very old stories — wrong, or at least casts them in a vastly different light. What’s a responsible news organization to do, especially when those old stories become more findable online?

On Aug. 28, Salon.com co-founder Scott Rosenberg posted a thoughtful response to a Aug. 26 column by New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt: When Bad News Follows You.

In a nutshell, the Times recently implemented a search optimization strategy that increased traffic to its site — especially to its voluminous archives. This meant that stories from decades past suddenly appeared quite prominently in current search-engine results. The Times charges non-subscribers to access archived stories.

Hoyt wrote: “People are coming forward at the rate of roughly one a day to complain that they are being embarrassed, are worried about losing or not getting jobs, or may be losing customers because of the sudden prominence of old news articles that contain errors or were never followed up.”

“…Most people who complain want the articles removed from the archive. Until recently, The Times’s response has always been the same: There’s nothing we can do. Removing anything from the historical record would be, in the words of Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor in charge of maintaining Times standards, ‘like airbrushing Trotsky out of the Kremlin picture.'”

Hoyt’s column offered no options for redress. He didn’t suggest that the Times might start researching more disputed stories or posting more follow-up stories. Nor did he suggest that the Times might directly link archived stories to follow-ups.

Rosenberg asserts that the Times has an obligation to offer redress. Personally, I agree. Plus, I’ve got an idea of how they (or any news org) could do it — and maybe even make some money in the process…


According to Rosenberg, “The Times’s success at boosting the value of its archival content …has had the unintended consequence of unearthing every unfixed error and reopening the argument over every disputed story in the paper’s past. …If the Times is truly the ‘paper of record’ that it has always positioned itself as, and its archives deserve high Google rank by virtue of their unimpeachability, then the paper needs to divert some of the cash it will take in thanks to that rank and fund an operation to look into reader complaints about old articles.”

I think Rosenberg makes a good point. Journalism isn’t just like any other business. We have an obligation to accuracy — and not just today’s accuracy.

One of the great treasures of news organizations is their role as keepers of the past. They provide continuity and context for communities. That, in large measure, is why so many people trust mainstream news organizations. Trust is, after all, the foundation of the news business model. It seems to me that refusing to correct or update the historical record directly undermines that trust — and thus, the news business.

Understandably, resources for this kind of effort are finite at any news organization, no matter how wealthy. And once a news org starts revisiting a few old stories, the floodgates will open and more complaints and disputes will pour in. What to do?

Blogger Brian Slesinsky suggested in a comment to Rosenberg, “A quick fix would be to put a disclaimer at the top of the article, Wikipedia-style: ‘Some of the facts in this article have been disputed…'”

That got me thinking: maybe what’s warranted is a moderated corrections wiki.

Picture this: The kind of disclaimer notice Slesinsky proposed could appear on the story and link to a wiki page for that story. There, the original text of the story would appear, and disputed or incorrect portions would be visibly highlighted. Each highlighted section would link to a sub-page where the dispute or error would be discussed and/or corrected — including direct responses from involved people or anyone with more information.

This corrections wiki wouldn’t be a free-for-all, of course. In order to weed out frivolous complaints, participants would have to provide verifiable information about who they are (including contact info, which could be kept private at the news org’s discretion), their connection to the story (if any), and a verifiable source for the facts they assert (including contacts, citations, or files, which could be kept private).

Contributions to that wiki would have to be moderated, to keep out libelous claims, spammers, etc. This would be an expense for the news org, but it might be worth it. The payoff is potentially huge.

A news organization that offers such comprehensive public redress would demonstrate its commitment to accuracy and fairness as well as respect for the voice of its community. This would likely yield significant loyalty — the ultimate cash cow and raison d’être of any news org. Also, those wiki pages could also further enhance the news org’s search visibility (read: site traffic). And of course, you can serve ads on all those wiki pages.

There’s obviously a huge public demand for updates to old news stories. If news orgs don’t meet this demand, someone else undoubtedly will. In another comment to Rosenberg, Tidbits contributer Tish Grier noted: “If no one’s willing to pony up the money for the necessary staff to do this, then the new the Google News comments feature may end up making Google the ‘paper of record’ because of its quicker correction rate.”

Seems to me that if news organizations want to complain about how Google’s eating their lunch, they shouldn’t keep handing it to Google on a platter.

(NOTE: I originally wrote this for Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, which is mainly read by pro journalists. I’m cross-posting it here because I think Contentious readers might find it interesting as well.)

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