Over at Bill Bishop’s new Sinocism blog, there’s a very interesting post and discussion about how the New York Times handles corrections to its online edition. The example in question concerns a switch in a China-related headline, from “Beijing Police Beat Artists Protesting Evictions” to “Evicted Artists Protest After Attack in Beijing,” once somebody at the paper realized that the first one was inaccurate. Bishop’s concern – and it’s one that I share in the comments – is that the correction was made on the fly, with no correction or apology appended for running an inaccurate headline in the first place. [UPDATED: Three days later, following Bishop’s widely-linked post, a correction has been appended to the online version of the evicted artists story.]
The case in question is China-related, but this is an issue that gets at a phenomenon – I’d characterize it as a problem – that I’ve noticed, and a number of my colleagues have noticed, over the last couple of years. And that is this: inaccuracies and outright mistakes that would have been corrected if they ran in the print edition of the NYT, are routinely erased from the online NYT, without note. This, despite the fact that the online side of the NYT is far more widely read than the print side. I’ve touched on this phenomenon at Shanghai Scrap, a couple of years ago, here; I’m surprised that other reporters have shied from it.
In any case, I’m troubled by this phenomenon for two reasons, the first of which I posted earlier to Sinocism: “[F]or the last decade the traditional media has argued for its expensive, slow-moving relevance by suggesting that – unlike blogs – it’s accountable, and that it takes its time to get facts straight via real reporting. But, increasingly, via venues like the NYT’s site, it’s obvious that the traditional media are trying to have it both ways. They want to cling to their reputation as deliberate, fact-checked reporters, all the while benefiting from the immediacy of online journalism, ie immediately correct your mistakes and not have to take responsibility for them. To my way of thinking, that’s the very definition of arrogance, as well as being a very raw deal for readers.” I’ll add, I think it’s potentially a very raw deal, too, for anyone who might’ve been had negative consequences accrue to them by an online NYT error that found its way into the paper’s memory hole.
[UPDATE: Comment #2, below, left by Cuyler Campbell, offers an excellent example of a digital content error that was erased from the site without comment or apology, despite its negative effect on readers in the Washington, D.C. area.]
The second reason that I’m troubled by this is personal. As noted yesterday at Shanghai Scrap, I was mis-quoted – wildly so – in yesterday’s editions of the International Herald Tribune and NYT (both print and online). To their credit, two editors at the IHT, and one of the reporters who wrote the story, assured me that the paper would run a correction to the mis-quote “ASAP.” And yet, more than 24 hours later, the inaccurate quote can still be found on the IHT/NYT website, and the promised correction has not yet run.
[UPDATE 2/26: The IHT/NYT corrected the story a couple of hours after this post went up. Much appreciated.]
Surely, if the NYT/IHT can erase inaccurate headlines without note, on the fly, they are capable of erasing something that I never said, but which the paper attributed to me, anyway? I’d be happy to wait for the print correction – nobody’s reading that, anymore, anyway. But the online story, that’s forever, and still getting hits.
When I talk to my media friends in NYC, there’s lots of scuttlebutt out there suggesting that the NYT/IHT – like many of its old-line counterparts in the traditional media – is having a hell of a time integrating the culture of its digital side into its print side. The apparent differences in how the two sides treat corrections suggests to me that there might be something to that.
[Addendum: A few hours after posting this with the title “A few thoughts on the NYT’s memory hole,” I modified it, for clarity’s sake, to the present title.]