Tuesday, November 17, 2015

So You Messed Up. What Now?

By Alex Lumley (al940712@ohio.edu)

My mom always used to tell me that in the long run, people won't remember mistakes that I've made. Rather, they'll remember what I did right afterwards to fix the mistake.

And while my dad's disproven that seemingly sagacious piece of advice over and over by refusing to let go of that time I was 13 and blew up our leaf blower by filling it up with car gasoline instead of motor oil, I'd say she's been pretty right in general.

But there are those who suggest that when it comes to journalism, simply correcting a mistake isn't enough. Anthony De Rosa believes updating a story with more correct information without informing readers that you've done so is a serious transparency problem.

Upon first reading his piece, I wasn't sure how I felt about this idea. After all, I was raised in an environment in which it might have been considered rather rude to let everyone know that you'd done something to fix a mistake you'd made. If people were to chat amongst themselves and found out that I'd written old Mrs. Locke an apology letter and offered to mow her lawn and wash her car for the whole summer after hitting a baseball through her bedroom window, then so be it. But I certainly wasn't going to announce to the whole neighborhood all the ways I'd been trying really hard to make up for it and everything I was planning on doing. People might have perceived me as rude and desperate for attention.

And besides, updating stories is already a ton of work in the first place. Uncovering new information and having to go back and tinker with a story that's three months old while you've already got new stories to work on is a pain. Having to add a little blurb about what changed and why it changed just seems like so much extra work.

This idea begins to seem even more tedious when changes don't come out of necessity because more correct information has surfaced, but rather when authors simply don't like the way in which they wrote something upon reflection and go back to tinker with it. Why should they have to let people know exactly what they changed and why if it has no impact on the factual validity of the story? Isn't it the author's right to edit their work as they see fit?

Well, I thought about all three of these ideas for a little while, and I came to the conclusion that De Rosa is right.

While it may be considered attention-seeking in some situations, updating readers when news stories they've read have been edited is quite the opposite. In fact, the rude thing to do would be to keep them in the dark and not let them know that the information we provided them that they've been sharing with all their friends was actually wrong. The polite (and ethical) thing for us to do is let them know as quickly and as obviously as possible that the story they read is no longer the same, and then we need to clue them in to why that is as well.

As for whether or not this would be extra work? Well, yes, it would be. And maybe that sucks. But you know what? That's our job as journalists. Keeping the public informed is why we exist. If we elect to do that, then we need to do it at all times, every step of the way. If we're not going to do it 100%, then we really shouldn't be doing it at all.

One of the most infamous "updates" to a story ever created. 
Photo taken from http://screenrant.com/star-wars-special-edition-changes-original-trilogy/?view=all.

And as for the last bit about letting people know when we've only changed something that's stylistic in nature and doesn't affect the truth of the piece over all? Well, I quickly realized that any change made to a work whatsoever is going to make it a different work entirely. If this idea seems ridiculous or difficult to grasp, just ask someone who likes the original Star Wars trilogy about it. Star Wars fans- definitely not all of them, but at the very least a vocal minority of them- were absolutely livid about some of the changes George Lucas went back and made to his first three films throughout subsequent home video releases. The changes were almost all rather minor visual effects and (for the most part) had arguably little effect on the overall story.

But audience members have a tendency to embrace content they really enjoy and begin to feel a certain degree of ownership over it. While readers may not feel as strong a connection to stories about city council policy meetings as they do to blockbuster sci-fi franchises, it's still important to acknowledge the feeling of ownership and connection readers may have to the content we produce and inform those readers why we've made changes to stories they've already read when we do.

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