Making Mistakes in Online Journalism Report

by journojames on April 18, 2012

Originally published on Mar. 4, 2012

On Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011, NPR News broke the story and reported — on air and online — that U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was killed in an attack at a public event near Tucson, Arizona.[1]

Within a half hour of NPR’s report, three cable news networks – CNN, Fox News and MSNBC – replicated the report. The ABC, NBC and CBS news divisions followed, along with other major news sources across the country, from the L.A. Times and Reuters to Talking Points Memo, many crediting NPR as the source.[2]

Aftermath of Giffords shooting, Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The problem: it was false. NPR mistakenly reported Gifford’s death when, in fact, she was alive and still in surgery.

Mistakes in the rush to gather facts and break news as quickly as possible are nothing new in the news industry. However, in today’s manic media environment — that includes websites, blogs and Twitter feeds — erroneous reports are likely to spread faster and farther than ever before, amplified by the speed and viral nature of the Internet and social media.

A troubling lack of copyediting done with online news displays is also complicating the issue.

In a 2009 survey conducted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, a study found that only half of 155 U.S. newspaper organizations required copyediting with their online news. Among larger newspapers (circulation above 100,000), a quarter reported they never copyedit online stories.[3]

This lack of assurance in accuracy and the unrelenting drive by the news industry to deliver more stories at quicker speeds brings journalists new and unique ethical questions and dilemmas, including: how to handle corrections and amendments in a medium where it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to make errors disappear.

Three specific cases — involving major errors, including factual inaccuracies and typos in stories that could create confusion on the part of readers, rather than on misspellings and grammatical mistakes, on news websites — will be examined to get a better understanding of this challenging issue: the premature and erroneous reporting of football coach Joe Paterno’s death, the recent amending of a derogatory ESPN headline that featured New York Knicks basketball player Jeremy Lin, and last summer’s “scrubbing” or unpublishing of a mistaken report by an ABC News affiliate in Omaha, Nebraska about a mandatory evacuation around the Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant.

On the evening of January 22 this year, Onward State, a student-run website affiliated with Penn State University, first reported that their former Hall of Fame football head coach Joe Paterno had died. Onward State had apparently based its report on an email — reporting his death — its editors and writers had received that was also supposedly sent to the football team.[4]

Joe Paterno, Photo courtesy of blinkoncrime

Within minutes, Onward’s story appeared on CBSSports.com, the Huffington Post, People.com, as well as BreakingNews.com, an offshoot of MSNBC.com. Journalists, such as Anderson Cooper of CNN, also began tweeting out the news. Soon, links to the reports were shared online by hundreds of journalists, mostly linking to CBS.[5]

It turned out that the e-mail was a hoax and that Paterno, while seriously ill with lung cancer, had not died. The false reports required Paterno’s family and Penn State to publicly deny the media reports and forced many embarrassed news organizations, such as CBS Sports to publicly apologize.[6]

The managing editor of Onward State, Devon Edwards, resigned that night as a result and Adam Jacobi, CBSSports.com blogger, was also fired for his erroneous tweet of Paterno’s death.[7]

Onward State quickly and clearly apologized for its erroneous report on their website and on Twitter. Edwards also wrote a long blog post, explaining in detail how the events unfolded.[8]

Craig Silverman, Photo courtesy of Businessjournalism

Craig Silverman, founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media mistakes and corrections, said on Poynter’s website: “Onward State will suffer the taint of this error for a long time, but they helped mitigate some of the damage by being fast and forthright with their reaction.”[9]

CBS Sports, however, simply updated its story and did not add a correction or apology right away, according to Silverman. He said that CBS did finally issue an apology from its managing editor right before midnight, even placing its apology at the top of its page. However, Silverman was troubled by how slowly CBS Sports reacted in comparison to Onward State.[10]

Another major mistake by a major sports media outlet occurred on February 18 of this year. ESPN garnered widespread and unwanted attention for a headline on their mobile website that focused on basketball point guard Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ rising star, who is of Chinese/Taiwanese descent.

ESPN's unfortunate headline, Photo courtesy of Deadspin

The headline came after a Knicks’ loss to New Orleans and linked to a story about whether the Hornets exposed weaknesses in Lin’s game. The headline “Chink in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-stopping Loss to Hornets” appeared at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday.[11]

Within minutes the story went viral, trending on Twitter with screenshots and condemnation by people who found the headline offensive. It was removed by 3:05 a.m. and was replaced with “All Good Things Must End in New York.”[12]

The next morning ESPN issued a prepared statement regarding the correction and apologized for the mistake. But the apologetic statement was completely separated from the original posting.

Anthony Federico, the 28-year-old front-end editor and six year veteran of the mobile website, who pushed the headline out himself, was fired. He later apologized and claimed that he had not used the phrase with any racial motivation.[13]

Silverman, in a recent phone interview, said ESPN didn’t do enough with its amendment.

“You obviously need to get that headline off the site,” Silverman said. “But you also need to explain why you changed it. To make the headline disappear completely doesn’t really serve any purpose.”[14]

A 2009 survey, conducted by the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) as part of the Online Journalism Credibility Project, found that 78 percent of 110 news editors opposed the unpublishing of online news articles. Despite this number, the practice of “scrubbing” or unpublishing parts or entire online news stories occur. Last summer, a local ABC News site in Nebraska scrubbed an entire erroneous evacuation story.[15]

On June 29, 2011, the local ABC News station in Omaha, Nebraska reported — on air and online — that an evacuation zone was issued around nearby Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant. More than two feet of water flooded key parts of the facility after a protective berm failed to keep out an overflow from the nearby Missouri River.[16]

There was concern that the flooding could damage the facility and pose a serious threat to the safety of the nuclear plant and surrounding area.[17]

After it was determined by plant officials that an evacuation wasn’t needed, ABC News redacted the story and entirely scrubbed it off all online news sites. ABC News even issued a take-down order demanding that all references to the story be removed from the Internet, including YouTube. The only traces left were from bloggers or citizen journalists who made notes, comments or references to their erroneous report on their own personal sites.[18]

Flooding at Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant, Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post

The result was regrettable. ABC News’s decision to scrub the error without a clear correction or explanation only seemed to complicate the situation. Many concerned citizens in the area were left confused and seemed unsure about which news to trust. For instance, this comment from reader Green Rosa: “…NO ONE seems to know what kind of emergency, or NON EMERGENCY this is… Does all of this make sense to you?”[19]

“The best policy is not to scrub,” Silverman said. “It’s best to say we acknowledge our mistakes and we acknowledge the changes and updates to our work. If you do that, you have a less of a chance of mistrust and giving people doubt.”[20]

This policy is even more important in today’s digital media because, according to Silverman, errors now “live forever” since they are archived online and can spread worldwide through search engines and social media.[21]

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) provides a code of ethics, but news organizations lack a similar standard set of policies when it comes to responsibly handling online corrections and amendments; the current state is wildly inconsistent.

“There’s not going to be a perfect rule for all because journalists, in general, don’t like things imposed on them,” Silverman said. “But we do need, online, a kind of consensus of what is the right way of handling things.”[22]

Silverman, as well as other journalists such as Kathy English, the Toronto Star’s public editor, and Scott Rosenberg, founder of MediaBugs.org, an online organization that keeps track of errors and problems in media coverage, have written extensively about how leading news organizations can best practice digital accuracy and corrections.[23]

Following SPJ’s code, they first advise news organizations and journalists to fix the error as soon as possible, when they realize a mistake has been made and a correction is needed.[24]

These corrections should be transparent and accessible, regardless of how short a time the error appeared on the website, according to New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane. Rosenberg, of MediaBugs.org, suggests any correction of substance be mentioned in a note that appears at the top or bottom of the article.[25]

“Errors must be acknowledged”, said Silverman. “You can’t just go back and fix something, thinking that no one saw it. Someone always sees it.”[26]

Rosenberg said that for sites that publish correction notices as separate items of content, each correction notice should link to the article that was corrected, and each corrected article should link to the correction notice.[27]

Transparency is the key. Building and keeping the trust of readers in the digital world demands that online news sources be as transparent as possible. This showing of accountability will also give more credibility to the news site in the eyes of its users.

Readers are becoming more important in the digital age in helping editors find inaccuracies. Online news sites then should also make it easier for them to report mistakes. Rosenberg said encouraging readers to notify online news sites of errors in effect makes all of them fact checkers, enhancing accuracy and building reader engagement.[28]

“Ideally, there should be a dedicated link on every page. It should be specifically worded to indicate that it is for reporting errors, which can take readers to a feedback form,” said Rosenberg.[29]

They also advised staying away from scrubbing” or unpublishing.[30]

Oops. Mistakes in journalism happen, Photo courtesy of Mark Follman

“It’s completely unacceptable,” Silverman said. “Online, corrections only work if they’re easily accessible and written in a way that clearly communicates both the error and the correct information.”[31]

Kathy English, who also compiled “The Longtail of News: To Publish or Not to Unpublish,” wrote in her report that stories should only be unpublished in rare situations. She said in most cases, this would be for legal reasons or if someone’s life was in endangered.[32]

Lastly, Rosenberg suggested that online news sites plainly post a brief policy on corrections so that readers clearly understand them.[33]

Mo one likes to make mistakes. It’s embarrassing. But they happen. And they will continue to happen. When digital journalists make mistakes, it can have far reaching implications. The responsibility of online journalists then is to come clean when a mistake is made and quickly correct it.

It’s worth remembering what Steven Rosenberg, the L.A. Daily News online editor said in a recent phone interview: “The most important thing to keep in mind in all this is that there must be a clear and responsible method for handling errors and corrections in online journalism, if accuracy and transparency are at the foundation of media credibility.”[34]


[1] http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0111/47282.html

[2] http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2011/01/11/132812196/nprs-giffords-mistake-re-learning-the-lesson-of-checking-sources

[3] http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=101903

[4] http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/01/22/joe-paterno-erroneously-reported-dead-saturday-by-many-media-outlets/

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/23/business/media/premature-reports-of-joe-paternos-death-roiled-web.html?_r=2

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/23/business/media/premature-reports-of-joe-paternos-death-roiled-web.html?_r=2

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/22/penn-state-rumors-joe-paterno-editor-quits-errors-report_n_1221807.html

[8] http://onwardstate.com/2012/01/21/a-letter-from-the-managing-editor-of-onward-state/

[9] http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/160277/false-paterno-death-reports-highlight-journalists-hunger-for-glory/

[10] http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/regret-the-error/160277/false-paterno-death-reports-highlight-journalists-hunger-for-glory/

[11] http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/20/us-espn-jeremylin-w-idUSTRE81J04620120220

[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/20/espn-jeremy-lin-racist-headline-apology-editor_n_1289093.html

[13] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/20/espn-jeremy-lin-racist-headline-apology-editor_n_1289093.html

[14] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/28/12

[15] “The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or Not to Unpublish,” Kathy English, 2009, page 7

[16] http://blog.alexanderhiggins.com/2011/06/28/fort-calhoun-nuclear-plant-underwater-references-10-mile-radius-evacuation-order-scrubbed-internet-news-sites-32161/

[17] http://blog.alexanderhiggins.com/2011/06/28/fort-calhoun-nuclear-plant-underwater-references-10-mile-radius-evacuation-order-scrubbed-internet-news-sites-32161/

[18] http://blog.alexanderhiggins.com/2011/07/03/abc-news-error-reporting-fort-calhoun-evacuation-demand-story-scrubbed-internet-32911/

[19] http://www.care2.com/c2c/share/detail/2854963

[20] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/28/12

[21] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/28/12

[22] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/28/12

[23] http://j-source.ca/article/best-practices-digital-accuracy-and-corrections

[24] http://j-source.ca/article/best-practices-digital-accuracy-and-corrections

[25] http://www.thestar.com/opinion/publiceditor/article/1122600–public-editor-online-corrections-essential-for-credibility

[26] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/28/12

[27] http://mediabugs.org/pages/best-practices-in-error-reporting-and-corrections

[28] http://mediabugs.org/pages/best-practices-in-error-reporting-and-corrections

[29] http://mediabugs.org/pages/best-practices-in-error-reporting-and-corrections

[30] http://j-source.ca/article/best-practices-digital-accuracy-and-corrections

[31] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/28/12

[32] “The Longtail of News: To Unpublish or Not to Unpublish,” Kathy English, 2009, page 16

[33] http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2010/07/when-it-comes-to-corrections-most-news-sites-fail194.html

[34] Phone interview with James Kim, 2/27/12

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