Don’t make them disappear

Bas Timmers on the problems with updating on the web.

Imagine this: you read an exclusive breaking news article on a website that says Gordon Brown is about to resign voluntarily. An hour later you come back to that same site, same article, but it now tells you David Miliband is about to step down after an argument with Brown. What to believe now?

This is an example of how much news has changed since the dawn of internet. If this imaginary scoop of Brown stepping down was printed on old-fashioned newspaper, it would have led to a rectification the day after. Together with the story of Miliband stepping down.

Online it doesn’t work like that. A story never stops. You publish it, and then subsequently change it if necessary, when new facts emerge, new sources arise and/or commenters give you new insights to the situation. That’s the developing story, changing (in theory) forever.

But as the imaginary example above shows us, it can lead to some strange situations. A visitor to the site has to trust the news. But what to believe if that news changes? What is accurate? The latest version, the reporter replies.

But it can’t be so simple that you just overwrite the earlier version and pretend that it wasn’t ever there? That is utterly confusing for visitors that read the previous versions. And it would make it all too simple for journalists to hide their previous mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a huge advantage that you can nowadays through the internet make your stories more accurate along the way. But it should also be compulsory to make earlier versions of the story accessible to the public. Take this example of Dutch open news site, which does exactly that (example).

There is one more reason for this procedure: legal implications. It would be all too simple to pretend to have a scoop, and then just correct it (or erase the entire article, as sometimes happens) and pretend there never was an earlier story.

Imagine being Gordon Brown, the victim of the scoop in the example. His reputation is damaged because of a slanderous article on a newssite. One has to stand for what one writes. So be open about it. And show me what you did with your story.

Bas Timmers is newsroom editor at Volkskrant newspaper in the Netherlands.

1 thought on “Don’t make them disappear

  1. Pingback: Persistent stories — The end of the news periodical | Solution Journalism

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