Revisionist journalism in a social media age

I feel compelled to blog about an experience I recently had with the online (self-described) blog of a local radio station. I, am however, going to blog about it without naming names, because I hope to inspire a bit of a discussion rather than point the finger at one mainstream media outlet that employs several practises I consider misguided, uninformed, and downright egregious (or at one reporter). I’d prefer to see what other journalists and consumers of news think about the points I’m raising.

A local radio station reported on a city council meeting in which there’d been significant discussion about the role of council vs administration in determining property tax increases. Since many current members of council campaigned on no-property-tax-increase platforms, it’s an important issue, and the fact that council seemed unsure of whether it could actually push back (administration was requesting a property tax increase higher than the inflation rate) and say, no increases or lower increases adds yet another wrinkle to the discussion.

A former mayoral candidate – someone who almost won the election – tweeted a comment, which was incorporated in the story posted on the radio station’s blog by the reporter attending the city council meeting. The station – or the reporter, it isn’t clear who manages the radio station’s feed, which is an issue I’ll discuss later – then tweeted the article using two local hashtags, one for the city itself (although not the shorter, more recently adopted airport code for the city locals have adopted), the other hashtag commonly used to report on council meetings, activities, and issues. The article was retweeted several times using all three hashtags commonly in use for the city and for council meetings. Unfortunately, the article referred to the mayoral candidate as a former aldermanic candidate.

I immediately posted – or rather submitted – a comment correcting the misinformation, saying that in fact the candidate had run for mayor and came a very close second in the race, not for alderman. I was required to provide my email address when leaving the comment (although I was assured it wouldn’t be published).

I checked the article the next day, and was surprised to discover that not only was my comment not posted on the article, but it had silently been corrected with the information I’d provided and using exactly my wording.

So I tracked down the reporter and fired off a somewhat – but not too – intemperate email about the issue. I suggested that if the reporter was not aware of what was happening to comments on the radio station’s web site, she needed to take it up with the powers that be.

The next day I got an email from the station’s news director, informing me of how well qualified the journalist was (Master’s degree, not a mere Bachelor of Journalism), of how hard she works and how tight her deadlines are, and informing me that the reporter had realized her own mistake prior to seeing my comment, had in fact covered the municipal election and had interviewed the candidate, had corrected her article, and that the correct information had been used when the story aired on the 4PM news.

My comment hadn’t been posted because it would have embarrassed me and confused other readers, since the story had been silently corrected. I was also informed that comments on the blog were supposed to further a discussion, not to correct facts or misinformation.

So let’s talk about the many many different ways in which this may not be the way to go with social media as a broadcast outlet and/or member of mainstream media.

  1. You’re using Twitter and you’re hiding behind a corporate presence without indicating who’s doing the tweeting. @cbcbooks does a great job of not doing this by naming the four people who tweet from their account in their bio and ending the tweets with the initials of the person who’s written them. It’s not rocket science, and it’s nice to know who you’re talking to.Your reporters are using Twitter and consider tweets fair game as ‘quotable quotes’ when writing stories (the comment was not made in person to the reporter or during the course of a telephone interview – see points 6 and 9).
  2. You have what you refer to as a blog on your radio station’s web site. But you don’t follow general social media and blog convention rules, which are that when a correction is made, strikeover mode is used.’You are about to write a Comment on this blog entry’ is the wording on the site when one attempts to comment on a story.
  3. Your comment ‘policy’ consists of a single line: ‘Your Comment (No HTML or coarse/ hateful language).’ My comment didn’t contain either but it didn’t survive to posting stage. You allow reporters to post directly to your blog without anyone referring the content prior to posting. As a former proofreader, copy editor, and fact checker, this strikes me as a very dangerous precedent.
  4. Your reporter him/herself reviews comments and decides whether to post them or not. And your reporter does this silently, rather than emailing the commenter to say, ‘hey, thanks for your comment – I realized my error and had already corrected the story before I read your comment – glad to see someone’s on the ball – there I go, writing too fast again! Is it ok if I don’t post your comment?’ To which I of course would have graciously replied, ‘Absolutely – no point in posting it.’ Instead I’m shaking my head and wondering what the heck they’re teaching in Masters of Journalism programs these days.
  5. You tweet stories that have not been proofread, fact checked or copy edited (I suspect using some form of auto tweet system that auto posts when the blog is updated).
  6. You have no social media policy posted on your web site for your reporters or the general public, nor is it possible to track one down when searching for your radio station or the parent company of your station.
  7. You have a different comment policy from the one that is posted on your site. If you don’t permit people to correct errors of fact and only want comments that expand the discussion, say so.
  8. You’ve made it look as if errors you make on your blog don’t matter; only what’s said on air matters.
  9. You don’t seem to understand that Twitter and the internet count too. What you – as a blogger or as a reporter or as a news outlet – post and tweet is you reporting the news – it’s not all about the 4PM radio broadcast when you make information public prior to air time. I didn’t bother to take a screen shot of the story with the misinformation – but now I wish I had.
  10. So – anything I’ve missed here? Think I’m being over-sensitive?
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About ruthseeley

Ottawa born, Toronto educated, lived in the Lower Mainland and southern AB for more than a decade. Geographically, I get around a bit (at least within Canada). Passionate about community, democracy, and good books. Fond of the Oxford comma.
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7 Responses to Revisionist journalism in a social media age

  1. tsieling says:

    It seems to have less to do with social media and more about simple editorial professionalism. The real error that the blog makes is to try and cover up the mistake by pretending it didn’t happen.

    Professional news outlets simply publish corrections, and if the article is online the correction shows up near the top or bottom. It may or may not be corrected in the text itself, and it’s often best if it is, but that an acknowledgement of the change is visible is the important thing.

    They lose multiple opportunities by mishandling the correction. The first is to let people know that they do actually correct factual errors. Seeing is believing, and they’re not letting people see it. By not publishing your comment, they miss out on the chance for other readers to see that they too can contribute by offering a correction, and that the people running the blog read the comments and take action based on them, when appropriate.

  2. ruthseeley says:

    I’ve watched mainstream media outlets over the course of the last two years move from a broadcast to an interactive model as they embrace social media. Some are, it seems, still at the beginning stages of not taking Twitter and blogs (including their own) seriously. Thanks for your comment, Todd – thoughtful and smart as always.

  3. Todd Sieling says:

    It’s a big shift in their thinking, and it will take a long time to get everyone moved off the ‘manage the audience’ mentality. Bit by bit, though 🙂

  4. tanyatales says:

    I think #6 is very important (no social media policy), which I think is a must-have in today’s world of electronic media. I think all comments should be posted real-time, regardless of corrections.

  5. ruthseeley says:

    Thanks for your comment, Tanya. I am beginning to regret protecting the identify of the news outlet in question – you should read the emails I’m getting as I try to discuss this with them privately! 😉

  6. You’re taking the high road by not pointing fingers or naming names. You’re being smart and not risking starting a flame war between bloggers, online marketing gurus and the mass media. I’ve often seen an influential blogger post a terrible experience dealing with the social media of a company, and the blogger’s readers and followers begin to troll the company. It’s not a pretty sight and doesn’t foster growth, awareness, or encourage future improvements.

    As for your particular situation, my benefit-of-the-doubt thinking wants to say that #4 is true and just never came to fruition. Hopefully the company has learned / is learning from this encounter.

  7. ruthseeley says:

    According to the last email I got, they still don’t seem to get it – to say its tone was both defensive and patronizing was putting it mildly. I’ll see if I can manage to run into the reporter and discuss it with her privately, in person.

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