Do you care if a news website changes a story after publication?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - 10:41 AM

(NBC News)

Late last night, when most reasonable people were sleeping, NBC News published a story about how, despite Obama’s promises to the contrary, many people weren’t able to keep their existing health care under Obamacare. Then, NBC News did something unusual. They unpublished the story. About a half an hour later, they published it again, but with a seemingly innocuous paragraph deleted.

I saw all this because journalists don’t sleep well, and a bunch of us were watching this unfold. New York Magazine’s Stefan Becket was awake, and he started tweeting about the NBC publish/unpublish dance as it was happening. As did Talking Points Memo’s Igor Bobic. The Washington Free Beacon’s Katherine Miller screengrabbed the redacted paragraph for posterity. Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, also not sleeping, spoke to a source at NBC who blamed the glitchiness on their publishing tool, although, that doesn’t really explain why the NBC article, when it was finally published for good, would be slightly edited.

For me, the weird thing about all of this is that I think I’m supposed to care a lot more than I do. I’m all for transparency, and for news outlets owning their mistakes - up to a point. But there’re actually instances where I’d like less transparency, thank you very much.

If a news outlet publishes something that turns out to be untrue, please, issue a correction so that people who find their way back to your bad story know where the wrong information came from. But if you just posted draft 8 of your Obamacare story instead of draft 9, and it’s midnight on a Tuesday, and the only people watching are a gaggle of insomniac journalists checking Twitter on their phones instead of sleeping? I’m not sure I mind a little sneaky CMS fixing.

That said, I am almost certainly biased here. I write on TLDR mostly without an editor, and I’ll frequently go back and fix a stray hyperlink or bit of glitchy grammar in the minutes after I post an article. I tell myself it’s reader service, but it’s probably at least as much in service to my own pride. 

So I’m curious. What would you all want? Total transparency? No transparency ever? Wikipedia-style version histories of every article, so that you can see how it got nudged around post-publication? (I actually kind of like that last idea.)


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Comments [8]


I definitely support automatic taking of all changes. We should be able to see all the "seemingly innocuous"changes that have been made, with journalists and editors having to waste time documenting every actually minor change. Stories like this, where the actual context and not just content gets changed, are disturbing.

Jan. 26 2014 01:27 PM


be the way.
John Robinson 323 4959138


Dec. 01 2013 12:30 AM
mark from iowa

Yes, I DO care if it is done with obvious intent to deceive readers that the publisher has an agenda and uses intentional deception to create the false impression of objectivity. In this case the "seeming" innocuous bit was not at all innocuous, it disclosed that the Obama administration, far from "I didn't know, don't blame me" actually was so well aware of the clause allowing grandfathering that it intentionally created a rule to stop it, forcing people off of their private policies despite Obama's promise. This president is known to be so detail conscious and controlling that this could not happen without his active approval and probably even original directive. When a news agency uses secrecy and deception to further a political agenda, it is not news (e.g., facts and objectivity, and trustworthy), it is propaganda (i.e., not objective, not factual, not face value, not trustworthy). MSNBC dishonestly wants to portray that it is objective, (thus to be trusted and thus not questioned), rather than biased (which invites skepticism).

Nov. 03 2013 01:35 PM
Matt from Iowa

Agreed, a wiki-history would be a good way to do it, but at the very least there should be some acknowledgement that the post has been adjusted.

I fear that this will become common practice. And then you have to ask, how long after publication does a writer/publisher have the right to go back and change things?

One hour? Day? Week?
Do we start going back and re-editing books 50 years after publication to get rid of off-color references and taboos that didn't exist when it was written?

Fact, as an idea of what IS, has become largely irrelevant when every toothpaste is recommended by 9 out of 10 dentists, every car has won an award of some kind, and politicians can outright lie without ever being challenged. We seem to have effectively scrubbed truth from our present existence. Are we going to start scrubbing the past sometime in the future? It's looking more and more like the answer is yes.

Nov. 03 2013 01:00 PM

This issue is going to be huge for media literacy from now forward. I wrote a think-piece on it for Medium, and a commenter advised me this is a whole field of study called "data provenance" -- where did the info come from, how and when did it get updated, how is that tracked.

As well as the data piece, the ethics piece interests me. How much can a story change under a given headline or url before it is misleading to refer to it as the same story.

Oct. 31 2013 09:08 AM
Linda from Kansas

" About a half an hour later, they published it again, but with a seemingly innocuous paragraph deleted. ... doesn’t really explain why the NBC article, when it was finally published for good, would be slightly edited."

I think the removed paragraph is important, if the information is accurate. Policies in effect as of March 23, 2010 do not have to add the ACA requirements, such as the long list of preventive health care at no cost to policy holder, maternity care, preexisting conditions, and other items that would reduce insurance companies' profits. It would seem the dropped insurance policies had "significant" changes after the grandfather date or there is some other reason the policies are being changed.

Journalist should focus on the content in the paragraph and the specific reasons policies are being dropped.

Oct. 30 2013 04:24 PM
Steve Persch from Chicago

The Knight Lab at Northwestern did a post on journalist and github a few months ago:

I expect the growing collaboration between journalists and coders to cultivate a culture where changes are tracked publicly, perhaps wikipedia-style as Rob suggests. I recently wrote a blog post on how github can facilitate simply typo fixes: My citing of the then-open-source "frontend" seems a little silly now that it has been pulled down.

Oct. 30 2013 01:11 AM
Rob Staeger from New Jersey

I'd like the Wikipedia style histories, as long as they're automatically updated (and just an unobtrusive link on the story's layout). Journalists and editors shouldn't take up their time manually notifying us about every comma change; they have better things to do.

Ideally, it's visible only if you want to see it, and effortless on the part of the news professionals.

Major changes, of course, can and should always be noted in a more public manner.

Oct. 29 2013 11:34 AM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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