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Criticism corrected, and corrections criticized

Dan Gillmor offered an observation a few days back about the challenges of being both fast and being correct in the world of journalism, suggesting a need for “slow news“. I got an email earlier today that reminded me that it’s not just news reporting where speed can trip you up – it gets those of us in the world of journalism criticism as well.

I subscribe to Columbia Journalism Review’s excellent cjr-press list, which distributes highlights from the CJR.org site every day. Today’s dispatch included this provocative-looking story:

“The Fort Hood Massacre: Be first or be right? Greg Marx measures the ripples of a story that a Texas paper ran with secondhand info that turns out to be wrong

I got that email at 12:34. At 1:07, I received one that read, in entirety:

Dear reader,
Our earlier e-mail message about this story said that the secondhand information in question turned out to be wrong. That is not accurate.
The editors

The Fort Hood Massacre: Be first or be right? Greg Marx measures the ripples of a story that a Texas paper ran with secondhand info


The essence of Greg Marx’s story was the observation that Barry Schlachter Shlachter in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram broke news about Nidal Malik Hasan’s beliefs by talking to Kamran Pasha, who didn’t know Hasan, but knew a friend of Hasan’s. “In other words, the Star-Telegram hadn’t actually tracked down a close friend of Hasan’s—rather, it had found a novelist who said he had spoken to this unidentified friend, and had decided that, at least in this case, a bit of journalistic telephone passed muster.” Marx’s story goes on to suggest that the Star-Telegram was making a serious error in reporting information collected through such a long and unverified chain:

There are good reasons, after all, that newspapers don’t regularly run with unverified material, which run from the outlandish (Could Pasha have been fabricating this unnamed officer?) to the more prosaic (Is there reason to be skeptical of Hasan’s friend’s credibility? How might his words have been distorted in the retelling? Would his account have changed if reporters had been able to interview him directly?

Kamran Pasha, the “novelist” in question, jumped into the comment thread of Marx’s piece, to point out that he’d interviewed the unnamed solider for the Huffington Post, that he was an experienced journalist and hardly merited the level of skepticism raised in Marx’s piece. And he mentioned that the connection he’d reported between Hasan and Yemeni imam Anwar al-Awlaki has now been confirmed in other media, adding to his credibility.

What I’d love to be able to do is compare the current version of Marx’s story with the one that originally ran. The current story steps right up to the line of accusing the Star-Telegram of running a story that turned out to be false: “It may turn out, in this case, that the departure from normal journalistic standards did not result in inaccuracy—certainly, the picture painted by the Star-Telegram story jibes with the emerging portrait of a deeply troubled individual who was driven, at least in part, by extreme religious beliefs.” I don’t know whether the original story – distributed with the headline “Greg Marx measures the ripples of a story that a Texas paper ran with secondhand info that turns out to be wrong” was more directly accusatory. But the current story is a weird artifact – it’s sharpened to make a point – second-hand sourcing leads to inaccuracy – that appears to have been broken off in the current version. Or perhaps the article is unchanged, and it simply implied that the Star-Telegram had reported false information so strongly that the headline writer misunderstood.

There’s a great way to address these sorts of questions – use a Wikipedia “history” model, so readers can consult earlier versions of a published article. One of the reasons no one reads newspaper corrections is that they’re literally unreadable – they’re paper hyperlinks to an earlier day’s edition, which means they’re useless unless you keep a stack of papers around to correct after the fact. We can do so much better in a digital age – we could correct, while linking to the earlier version, and we could offer a blacklined version of stories to show how they were edited and changed. It would be unobtrusive for readers who didn’t care to see the earlier versions, and we’d avoid questions of libel by making it clear that the earlier edition had been corrected and was not for citation.

Until this feature becomes widely supported in publishing platforms, CJR did the next best thing – a visible, public correction. They should have shown the uncorrected story as well. And, of course, they should have been significantly more careful to have their ducks in a row before criticizing the Star-Telegram for failing to have their ducks in a row.

(I realize in writing this that I’m almost certainly getting something wrong which will force me to issue an embarrasing correction once confronted by CJR.org. At the very least, I’ll use strikethrough tags so you can watch me eat crow.)

A footnote: after ammending the headline on the article to a less inflamatory version, CJR acknowledged another error in their story: they misspelled Mr. Shlachter’s name throughout. They’ve corrected their error and, to their credit, added this note of explanation:

“The original version of this story misspelled Mr. Shlachter’s last name. The incorrect spelling was taken from the byline as it appeared on the McClatchy DC site, where the embedded link above leads. The byline is spelled correctly on the Star-Telegram’s version of the story.”

Marx has now weighed in on the comment thread and states that there were no additional changes to the story, beyond the spelling correction, the altered headline in the email blast (which he explains as the result of internal miscommunication) and a link at the top of the story to Pasha’s response in the comment thread.

Another note – told you I’d be editing this post for weeks to come. Marx clarifies that the article on CJR – including the headline – was not altered. The email I received contained an incorrect headline, and that headline was ammended with a subsequent email. The changes made to the story involved correcting a spelling error and linking to a piece of the comment thread.

I maintain that it would be great idea if we could examine versions of online news stories so you could flip through the story on the CJR site, rather than wading through my footnotes here. :-)

4 thoughts on “Criticism corrected, and corrections criticized”

  1. It’s almost surreal (and increasingly untenable, both in terms of good professional practice and of technology) that news organisations don’t routinely do this kind of versioning, not only to preserve transparency around errors of fact, but also in order to do the best kind of advocacy for the journalistic profession – to lay bare the nature of the process of information-gathering, fact-checking and verification, accretion, editing, and so on. Having access to this would alter the conversation about how journalistic communication happens, and what of its values we need to preserve, adapt and promote in the information environment we find ourselves right now.

  2. Hi, Ethan

    Thanks for doing a great job of explaining this CJR gaffe.

    Today has sure been a banner day for CJR, in terms of lack of transparent corrections in their media criticism.

    Today CJR ran a piece by Megan Garber (http://bit.ly/4duGKK) deriding Spot.us for delivering “disappointing” journalism in an environmental story that the NYT ran today.

    In her very last paragraph, hidden behind an unnecessary page jump, Garber finally mentioned that the Spot.us reporter had published a lot of quality information in her blog on Spot.us, and that the Times’ editing of the piece (which was out of Spot.us control) did not convey the depth or quality of this material.

    Several journos (myself included) took Garber to task for this approach in the comments. After much defensiveness, Garber begrudgingly acknowledged that her framing of the story was flawed, and she added a small “addition” (she wouldn’t call it a correction) a few paragraphs from the top. The story’s headline, subhead, and lead still clearly imply that Spot.us and the reporter didn’t do a good enough job.

    I explained to her how to use strikethrough tags. She didn’t seem interested.

    What could CJR possibly have to gain by being defensive and opaque/obscure about corrections?

    Amy Gahran

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  4. The question of speed versus accuracy is ancient. It was raised recently in an entirely different context: the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. There the study text was from Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra 21a:


    Raba further said: If there are two teachers of whom one gets on fast but with mistakes and the other slowly but without mistakes, we appoint the one who gets on fast and makes mistakes, since the mistakes correct themselves in time.

    R. Dimi from Nehardea on the other hand said that we appoint the one who goes slowly but makes no mistakes, for once a mistake is implanted it cannot be eradicated.

    The issue was raised in relation to the ability to tweet while studying.

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