A few thoughts on handling online corrections, and the NYT’s memory hole.

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.]


  1. I don’t think they’ve really thought through the correction policy since digital started editing stories in puble. The Times being the Times, they probably won’t think it through until something nasty happens. Then there will be public hand wringing and a long sancimonious letter from the publisher to the readers while reporters leak “I told you sos” to Gawker. Predictable and pathetic.

  2. Great point Adam. I noticed something similar a couple of weeks ago, when the NYT ran a profile of the federal official here in DC who makes the decision to shut down the government during inclement weather, as he did 4 days that week due to the two blizzards. The article went up on their website around 6 pm on Thursday and it said that the official had decided to close the government for a 5th consecutive day on Friday.

    To the consternation of many Washingtonians who had been emailing the NYT article around to each other saying “look, we’re closed tomorrow!”, just after 7 pm OPM put up their operating status announcement on their website announcing that the government would, in fact, be open on Friday.

    Did NYT run a correction? Nope. But within the next hour or so they changed their story online, with no mention that it had originally been blatantly incorrect.

    anyway, just another example of the phenomenon you’ve highlighted here. Thanks for calling attention to it.

  3. Adam, I’m starting to think they quoted you correctly and now you’re the one backtracking. Haha …

    More to the point, the difference is the online version can be updated — I’ve noticed on the home page many stories that have “updated” in red with a time next to them (i.e. 26 minutes ago). What happens to a story that has a window where it can be updated throughout the day? It completely changes the whole article concept of the news. It isn’t one story anymore, but what could be the combination of several updates to get the whole thing right. What I am sure is bothering Adam as well as many others is why the NYTimes can’t get it right the first time — after all, they’re the NYTimes.

  4. congratulations to you and Bill Bishop. There isn’t any way that the times would run the correction if you two didn’t blog the problem. Blog POWER!

  5. Agree with blog fan that Times acted because blogs pointed out a problem. Prob somebody in local office emailed home office to say needs fixing. Good to local office for reading blogs/ Home office needs to fix corrections pol.

  6. In fact HTML has two tags specifically for marking and dating corrections, [del] and [ins] (with the usual angle brackets). If they were really serious about being transparent with their corrections they could use ins/del and CSS to mark-up and not/display corrections.

  7. relieved to know that there ARE some westerners understand media, even reputable ones, sex up their stories with misleading headlines and exacerbate miscommunications between China the US.

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