June 19, 2012

When editing online, “it only takes 20 minutes to shift the blame”


Hawk-eyed media watchers have made a habit of exposing online edits that dramatically change the tone of a story. The Politico article on General Stanley McChrystal being a much-cited example.

Now, Craig Silverman writes on Poynter about a new app that tracks changes to content on CNN and the New York Times. This app is an important step in online journalistic accountability. As Silverman says,

“Web pages, articles, blog posts and other content are easily altered, changed, deleted. And it’s not always clear what’s new or has been removed.”

NewsDiffs was created by programmers Eric Price and Greg Price, along with former New York Times reporter Jennifer Lee.  They think that such tracking is important, given that,

“Sometimes the changes are minor — small edits in language or correction of spelling mistakes. Other times, the stories change and evolve rapidly, as a result of breaking news. Occasionally, the lede and substance of an article change as more reporting comes in on a fast breaking situation. Sometimes those changes provoke criticism.”

The site was certainly fun to look around on. I was particularly amused by the amount that Times editors capitalized and then de-capitalized the “t” of “to” in the headline “Thousands March Silently To Protest Stop-and-Frisk-Policies”.

On a more serious note, the screen grab below shows the extent to which editing can change the significance of a story. In that same article about the Stop-and-Frisk protest, while at 10.28pm, police officers “began pushing a crowd in the intersection”, at 11.08pm, police officers “began pushing a crowd that defied orders to leave”.


This change is nothing compared to the now famous edit that Silverman highlights, which shifted blame from police to the protestors in a mere twenty minutes during Occupy Wall Street protests.


I don’t pretend to know the ins-and-outs of online media editing, here in the book world we don’t have that same luxury. Still, I am of the opinion that all online media should clearly show and track edits, as Arthur S. Brisbane, the Times’ Public Editor has also suggested.

In his opinion piece on the issue, he wrote that,

“Right now, tracking changes is not a priority at The Times. As Ms. Abramson [the New York Times Managing Editor] told me, it’s unrealistic to preserve an “immutable, permanent record of everything we have done.

I realize there are other priorities. But more attention to this issue would bring two clear benefits. First, The Times could offer more transparency to its readers and stem the erosion of trust that occurs when readers don’t understand mysterious content changes. Second, by more carefully retaining important published material, including all corrections, The Times could reinforce to its staff the importance of accuracy and full disclosure when errors happen.

Enforcing and publishing a clear set of standards would go a long way toward ensuring that time-tested news values survive in the digital age.”


Ariel Bogle is a publicist at Melville House.