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Summary:

The Washington Post’s delay in responding to complaints about a piece that one of its columnists wrote is just another sign of how out of touch many media outlets are when it comes to correcting their mistakes.

One of the biggest benefits of publishing online as opposed to in print is that making corrections to a story and adding new material is so much easier than it used to be — instead of waiting days for a tiny correction or clarification to appear in print, mistakes can be corrected and stories updated almost instantaneously. Why then do so many traditional news outlets fail to take advantage of this ability? A classic case in point is the recent back-and-forth between the Washington Post and Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald over a Post columnist’s errors.

In case you missed it, Post columnist Walter Pincus wrote a piece for the newspaper on Monday about Greenwald’s involvement with Edward Snowden — the former CIA contractor who leaked a series of top-secret documents about an NSA surveillance program. In his column, Pincus made a number of allegations about Greenwald’s relationship not just to Snowden but to WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, and in the process he referred to a blog post that Greenwald wrote and also some statements by Assange about the U.S. government and its surveillance programs.

Almost three days from error to correction

Unfortunately for the Post, some or all of those statements and allegations were wrong. As Greenwald detailed in a letter he wrote to Pincus on Monday, the description of where his blog post appeared was inaccurate, as was the description of Assange’s comments, along with most of the implications that Pincus drew from them (namely, that the WikiLeaks founder had some kind of advance notice of Snowden’s NSA revelations).

Apparently, some establishment journalists have decided that the way to save a discredited and dying industry is to fill articles and columns speculating about the news-gathering process on a significant story in which they had no involvement… but making up facts along the way, as you’ve done, should still be deemed unacceptable. At the very least, they merit a prominent correction.

What happened then? Not very much at all. Pincus eventually responded to Greenwald via email on Tuesday and admitted that he had made at least one mistake, but there was no acknowledgement or update by either him or the Post on the website. As Tuesday turned to Wednesday, there was still no response to Greenwald’s complaints — something the Guardian writer also noted several times on Twitter as the gap between the original column and any correction increased.

The Post finally added a multi-point correction to the top of the Pincus column late Wednesday — almost three full days after the original piece — acknowledging that the original description of both Greenwald’s blog post and the statement by Assange were incorrect, and also that the column may have given the wrong impression about Snowden’s background by not including enough information about his history as a CIA contractor.

It’s a real-time media world now

Fall on a banana peel

Erik Wemple, who writes a media blog for the Post, said in a post on Thursday that the long delay was a result of the newspaper “taking a close look at a set of objections posed by Greenwald and formulating a thorough pat-down of the story, just the way a newspaper should” and described the whole affair as the Post “showing how accountability is done.” But does this case really do that, or does it show how backward much of the mainstream media still are when it comes to correcting their mistakes?

I would argue it does a lot more of the latter than the former. Did the Post eventually publish a correction? Yes. But why didn’t it or Pincus respond in some way before then, apart from an email to Greenwald? Ideally, Pincus should have noted the criticism from Greenwald in some way as soon as he received it, and either said that he was wrong — and corrected the record immediately — or said that he and the paper were reviewing the Guardian writer’s points and would address them soon. They did neither (although Pincus did try to defend himself in comments to Wemple).

This is really no different than the advice that we and others give to companies about their use of social media and the need to “engage” with customers — if you leave a vacuum by not responding, people will fill it with criticism, and your lack of response will also be taken as a sign that you don’t care and/or are not that smart. The bottom line is that newspapers have customers too, and they are called readers: what message does it send when you fail to respond to a significant complaint about your product for almost three days?

Newspapers have a long history of avoiding corrections as much as possible, and of disguising or downplaying their mistakes by posting obtuse “clarifications” days or even weeks after the mistake occurred (and it should be noted that some online outlets aren’t great at corrections either). In some ways, it’s as much a part of the gatekeeper culture as the lack of interest in reader comments, social media and other forms of engagement — but that kind of behavior is becoming less and less tenable every day, as the competition for the attention of readers increases.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and Stephen Brace

  1. snoopdougiedoug Friday, July 12, 2013

    So the issue is whether three days is an acceptable period of investigating whether a complaint is valid? Should every complaint be acknowledged? Most newspapers have a boiler-plate statement along the lines of “We value your trust and strive to maintain the highest journalistic standards. Please send corrections and comments to …” In no place do they state that they will respond or acknowledge.

    It’s worse to have a knee-jerk response that only encourages the flakes and trolls. Ideally any mistake should be ameliorated within one publishing cycle after the error is confirmed.

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