The rush to get the story out first, the ability to quickly post stories, and the general lack of oversight and pre-publication review suggest that online journalism may be error-prone. The rapidity in which stories are picked up, shared, and integrated in other news reports means that the consequences of errors propagating throughout the Web are magnified. On the other hand, it's been argued that the Web provides the opportunity for readers to point out any errors, and allows for rapid corrections to be made. How corrections are made may itself be an issue. Do revised stories just appear without notice of any change or correction (the hot phrase for that seems to be "airbrushing" stories), or are the corrections or edits specifically acknowledged, with or without maintaining the various versions of the story?
The Nieman report made some initial suggestions, indicating that making formal acknowledgments of errors and quickly making corrections not only helped improve readers' perceptions of reliability, but also had the effect of reducing the frequency of future errors. A piece in PBS' Mediashift Idea Lab by Scott Rosenberg offers more concrete suggestions:
- Link generously - particularly to source materials
- Show your work - indicate what corrections or changes are made (or better yet, make all versions available)
- Make it easy for readers to report possible errors - harness their expertise (it's free)
Many journalists view readers as adversaries... the specific reader with a complaint is "someone with an agenda" whom they have a duty to ignore.
On the other hand, there are also some structural factors at play - once a story is out, reporters normally move on to something new, and there is little incentive in news organizations to keep returning to "old news." That approach is part of the old media emphasis of reporting to deadlines, of working to fixed editions rather than a continuing news flow. In addition, making corrections doesn't bring in revenue directly, although you could make a strong case that making corrections and improving your reputation makes a news outlet more valuable in the long run. A focus on short term revenue generation also contributes to policies against linking outside one's own site, and the failure to incorporate online features conducive to eliciting comments and corrections and versioning into content management systems.
I think Rosenberg comes to a good conclusion:
Ask journalists what sets them apart from everyone else sharing information online and we'll say: We care about accuracy. We correct our mistakes. In a changing media economy that's challenging the survival of our profession, we need to follow through on those avowals. ... But journalists will never regain public trust unless we overcome (these obstacles to correcting errors).But read all three of these reports - they ought to serve as a wake-up call for journalists and news organization.. The next Pew reputational study should be out this fall, and we'll see whether journalism continues to throw away its credibility and reputation. Given their recent performance, I expect the decline to continue. And that's very problematic to journalism's long term survival.
When you've lost your credibility, you've lost any value as a news organization - what's left is little more than entertainment and gossip.
"How Newsrooms Can Win Back Their Reputations" PBS Mediashift Idea Lab
"Press Accuracy Rating Hits Two Decade Low", Pew Research Center report
"Confessing Errors in a Digital Age," Nieman Report
Edit 1: Fixed some typos.
Update (29June2011) - One day - and a new poll result from Gallup suggests that confidence in news organizations has improved - slightly (up 1-2%). And provides a new graphic.
Source: "Americans regain some confidence in Newspapers, TV News" Gallup Reports