Monday, September 10, 2007


On permanence and errata

Every couple of weeks, Clark Hoyt, the New York Times “Public Editor” gives a commentary on some aspect of the New York Times:

The public editor serves as the readers’ representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.
In late August, Mr Hoyt brought up an issue that’s germane to all of us who put anything up on the Internet. His essay, “When Bad News Follows You”, ponders what responsibility we all have to correct errors, considering the permanence of what we write here and how easy it is to search and to find information of uncertain quality.

As I read his essay, I thought about some of the things that I’ve changed in these pages. Take this entry, for instance, where I criticized some research for studying — and reporting — something very obvious, criticism based on a news account of the study. I subsequently read the actual paper, and posted this update to point out that the study isn’t really as pointless as it seems to be from the news article. And I added an update to the end of the first post that points to the second, so anyone reading the critique will see that I’ve posted a follow-up.

And there’s this post, in which I mis-attributed something to Fox News, which had actually been on MSNBC. I added a note of correction, and also made the corrections in the text (striking out the errors, so both the errors and the corrections are obvious).

I feel that it’s important to do that exactly because of the permanence and ready accessibility of what’s on these pages. Months or years, perhaps even decades, after we’ve written all of this and have forgotten it, someone will find it. That people might take what I’ve written as fact and use it worries me only a little — I’m hardly a constant source — and yet I care to make sure that it be as accurate as possible when a search engine of the 22nd century pulls it out. The New York Times obviously, as Mr Hoyt tells us, can do far more damage with an uncorrected error.

I understand the expense for a publication such as the Times, and yet I believe it’s their responsibility to add a correction to the original item as it appears in the archive. Posting a correction in one column-inch on page 17 was the norm when it was less likely that a researcher would find and rely on the original, digging through old newspapers on microfilm. But even then, such corrections were inadequate. Now, with search engines putting the articles ever at our fingertips, such corrections are quite useless — the correction will be at the bottom of the search results, if it even shows up at all.

I’m not suggesting that “rewriting history” is the answer; I’m suggesting that the original material remain, with a correction added. I’m also not addressing some of the other questions that Mr Hoyt brings up, involving disputes about the accuracy of information, where it’s not clear whether a correction is appropriate or not. Those aside, there are plenty of cases where the error is clear and the newspaper would print a separate correction.

Despite the expense, newspapers must correct their errors inline. The technology that allows them to be the definitive sources of archived news that they are places that responsibility on them.

1 comment:

Maggie said...

That's a really good point, Barry. Sorry to post a "me too," but nobody else had commented. I wanted you to know people are reading and when they're silent, probably agreeing. :-)