Over the weekend, the New York Times got into some controversy over a story about a Navy SEALS raid in Somalia. You can read a detailed account of how the changes occurred and some of the blowback here: New York Times Stealthily Corrects Navy SEALs Somalia Raid Story.
There are two main issues in this small tempest that are larger problems for media outlets:
- Pushing out news that is not verified in a breaking news situation;
- Not correcting online stories in a way that is transparent
The first issue is one that will take some work to get past, especially in the scoop-driven 24/7 world of online news and social media. Every time there is a breaking news event these days, it seems media outlets are too willing to push out information that they’ve not properly verified because it’s fresh and they get to be first.
But first doesn’t make you better. It also doesn’t make you right.
The lesson for college journalist is to always verify information with at least two credible sources if at all possible. If you can’t get independent verification (say you interview a police officer, but you can’t get a copy of a police report), stress that you have no independent verification of the information, but your source says X.
Anthony De Rosa of Circa sums up the second issue, which is the one that I think college media really should focus on.
I’ve praised the New York Times’ corrections policy before. And I still think it’s a good overall policy for media outlets to adopt.
But somehow, they ignored their own policy in this instance (as of today, there are no notes on the Times’ online story saying that the story was corrected). I’ve seen reports that this is more common than people think, but I haven’t researched that yet. And I’ve also seen a number of other major news outlets change stories online with no mention whatsoever that there was a change made.
It’s very simple, really: If you make corrections to your articles online, note that corrections have been made! If the story changes based on further reporting, note that the story has changed based on further reporting! This is not hard.
Additionally, there should be clear guidance on how developing news stories should be handled with regards to such changes. I understand that the Times wants a story with a clear narrative for their print edition, but the web is not print. And the more instances occur like this, the more people will distrust not just the Times, but all media in breaking news events.
My advice would be to write a breaking news story in reverse chronological order, latest updates at the top, and then provide an entirely separate rewrite once you go to press, but don’t delete the breaking news version. Link to it online from the rewrite.
News consumers understand that information will change as the dust settles on a breaking news event, and there’s often contradictory information in the initial chaos. Don’t hide that confusion, but show that – as journalists – you’re working to clear up the chaos for your readers.