Critical Thinking: How Does Story Removal and Revisions After Publication Hurt Journalism Ethics?

By: Adreana Young

Critical Thinking How Does Story Removal After Publication Hurt Journalism Ethics

“From Gawker’s Condé Nast controversy to the New York Times’ Hillary Clinton story edits, we’re seeing more articles being removed or revised after publication. How does this hurt journalism ethics?”

Mary Bradley, 21, senior, Murray State University (Murray, Ky.)
Bradley is the editor-in-chief of Murray State University’s student newspaper The Murray State News. A senior journalism major and political science minor, Bradley has completed internships at Indianapolis Monthly in her hometown of Indianapolis and at the Missoula Independent in Missoula, Mont. She also contributes to Pink and Black Magazine and The Odyssey.

Mary Bradley, senior, Murray State University
Mary Bradley, senior, Murray State University

This past 4th of July, I sat on a lawn chair across from a cardiothoracic surgeon who wanted to know more about 21st century journalism. He asked me a question I have heard before and have attempted to answer on multiple occasions.

“Why do I feel like I can’t get a full story the first time around?” he said.

Factoring partisan media out of this picture, journalism has been buckled down for a ride on a rollercoaster of digital advancements. Twitter has given journalists ultimate test of word count right as page views have begun to reign supreme over circulation. A breaking story tends to be accompanied with a hashtag. In some instances, the need to break a story before other outlets can leave fact checking at the wayside.

Does this hurt journalism ethics? Of course. These added ways to communicate—partnered with the increasing speed to which stories are reported—seem to injure our communication. In the instance of the New York Times’ story on Hillary Clinton, the Times reported a story on Clinton’s personal emails, reporting that two inspectors general had sought a criminal investigation, whereas Clinton is not the target in a criminal investigation.

When there’s a mistake, there’s a mistake and a correction should be issued. Maintaining ethical standards throughout all forms of media ensures the trust between an outlet and its readership. In the Associated Press stylebook, former general manager of the Associated Press, Melville Stone, says, “The thing (the AP) is striving for is a truthful, unbiased report of the world’s happenings … ethical in the highest degree.”

Stone said those words 101 years ago, and they still stand today.

Todd Krysiak, 35, editor, Capital Newspapers (Madison, Wis.)
Krysiak is editor of the Baraboo News Republic, Sauk Prairie Eagle and Reedsburg Times-Press in southern Wisconsin. He has worked at daily newspapers in South Dakota, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Removing a news story entirely or making online edits without acknowledging the changes constitutes an unacceptable breach of our readers’ trust. The most important ethical guidelines we establish for ourselves as journalists are intended to develop and maintain trust.

Todd Krysiak
Todd Krysiak, editor, Capital Newspapers

Long regarded as the nation’s newspaper of record, the New York Times plays an important role as a trendsetter in the newspaper industry. That status is exactly why “stealthy” online story edits, acknowledged by Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, are so troubling.

Throughout American history, in addition to their immediate value in presenting the day’s news, newspapers also have served as a critical historic record.

As more news moves online, archives serve a similar function. To modify that record without acknowledging the change is deceitful.

As journalists, we have a duty to report accurate information, but mistakes are inevitable. The best way to address a mistake is to acknowledge and correct it, whether online or in print.

Online, a story with erroneous information should be corrected, but a notation must be added, making it clear what was changed and why. The notation should be updated at the same time the story is changed online.

Even if it is found that poor judgment was exercised in publishing a story, as was determined by some company executives in the case of Gawker’s Condé Nast story, news outlets must acknowledge and accept their mistakes, rather than trying to hide them. We all know that once something is published online, it is highly likely a copy or digital shadow of it is out there, somewhere.

Trying to hide or eliminate that content is futile and potentially more harmful to the publication’s reputation than the initial error.

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Published: October 9, 2015

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