Thursday, January 13, 2011

Where's That Tide Schedule?

Nobody likes to make mistakes, least of all newspaper people.

Mistakes I made led me to exit the industry butt-first in 2005. I regret the mistakes still. But the corrections were handled as they should have been: Swiftly and prominently.

So I read with great interest a debate on Scott Rosenberg’s blog Wordyard about whether news organizations (and by extension, anyone looking to keep a reputation of accuracy in any kind of social media) should delete erroneous tweets as part of a corrective action or leave the tweets to hang in the twittersphere as part of the overall public record.

This goes far beyond the typical newsroom correction debate, parodied in an unforgettable Bloom County comic strip in which Ace Reporter Milo Bloom approaches editor Vanderbeek to proclaim that the sensational child-stealing epidemic the paper wrote about never actually happened.

“Yeek!” replies Vanderbeek. “Run a correction beneath the tide schedules on page 39!”

So where do I stand on the whole bald versus shaved debate?

Don’t delete.

First of all, deleting from your Twitter or Facebook account doesn’t really delete anything because you don’t know who else out there has cached the page or done some other kind of public-access archiving to preserve for posterity the terrible things that you’ve said. Appending a correction to the tweet, or as some posters on Rosenberg’s blog has suggested, adding a “correction” function to Twitter’s options make more sense, as it’s clear – and likely traceable back to the original post or tweet – what is being corrected. The additional function of retweeting the correction to everyone who retweeted the original tweet seems essential, and not outside the realm of technology.

Still, it seems easier to avoid putting out bad information in the first place.

In other words, don’t rush to post.

What I find most intriguing about this discussion are responses from the Associated Press and Dan Rather, as reported by the AP’s David Bauder:
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said that if he were covering the story in the 1970s and 1980s, he would not likely have gone with the NPR report. But if he were in the anchor chair in 2011, he probably would have.

"The pressure is immediate and almost crushing on you and your news organization to match that," he said. "Mostly what you hear are sets all over the world going to your competition and computers, handheld or otherwise, going to a different site."

NPR's reputation as a news organization would carry weight, particularly since television news organization knew NPR was more likely to have people close to the scene.
To blame the urgent drive for expediency seems dubious to me. Why rush to be the first with bad information that hasn’t been substantiated by at least two sources? Yes, there is much more instant media today than there was in the 1970s, but, frankly, we’re talking only in a matter of seconds versus a manner of minutes. If, in the 1970s, Rather would take an extra few minutes to find a second source, knowing he could get on the air within minutes with the corroborated information, why not take the time now? The pressure may be “immediate and crushing,” now, but tell me, truthfully, is it any more immediate and crushing than it was 40 years ago?

Additionally, whatever has happened to the old newsroom axiom: If your mother says she loves you, verify it? That certainly would have saved me some embarrassment in 2005, surely, as it would have many news outlets this weekend as their erroneous reports went out and were retweeted across the universe.

It also seems essential, in reading the National Public Radio ombudsman’s column on the incorrect Gabrielle Giffords information the network sent out Saturday, that reporters and social media wonks at any news organization not exist in walled gardens:
The Twittersphere exploded with scores retweeting Giffords’ supposed death, exemplifying how news travels in a nanosecond in today’s media world before anyone has time to process it.

“Within a few minutes, I started seeing other news orgs either holding back on reporting it as well as people on Twitter asking me about it,” wrote Carvin in an excellent post on explaining what happened with Twitter. "About 25 minutes later, I saw that the NPR site had changed the headline from saying she had been killed to that she had been shot.”
While it’s a good thing he was watching the newsline, he shouldn’t have had to – those on the news end and the social media end ought to be talking to one another, especially in frenetic situations like these.

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