Why does the New York Times think it has to preserve its misjudgments online?

Apparently the New York Times has a statute of limitations on editorial judgment.

Apparently the New York Times has a statute of limitations on editorial judgment.

What should news media be willing to change about old online stories, and what should they insist on keeping unchanged?

I faced this problem while Online Editor for The Plain Dealer. We regularly got calls from individuals or “reputation managers” (i.e., Internet fixers) who wanted us to make old stories go away. Usually, the stories were reports of arrests or convictions.

This week, New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan wrote about a lot of people who asked the Times to change the layout of an online story to downplay a photo. In that case, it wasn’t personal: The photo was of a grieving Palestinian woman, but was used to illustrate a story about how her son had killed an Israeli soldier.

Both I and Times editors decided against changing our posts. I’m pretty sure I was right in my choice. I’m pretty sure the Times was wrong in its.

When I was asked to remove or alter a post, I started with a question: Was the original post accurate? If the answer was yes, then we didn’t have much more to talk about. I had a firm policy: I would not intervene to remove posts that were true. (Occasionally stories disappeared due to changes in the site structure.)

My ethical reasoning: It is not a newspaper’s job to help someone erase their past. If something’s true, it’s true.

However, if I could confirm that a post was incorrect, we would correct it or, if necessary, remove it. Our basic policy on corrections: Don’t leave false information online. Remove the error, replace it with correct information if appropriate, and always leave behind a note telling readers that a change was made, and why.

Beyond the simple true/false test, there were some times when we would alter existing content. We were especially sensitive to issues involving young children. We also went back on occasion to remove photos that upon review we considered inappropriate. The logic behind those was the same as for fixing errors: Don’t leave something online if you don’t think it belongs there. There is no statute of limitations on editorial judgment.

The Times says that it was wrong to play the photo as it did. From Sullivan’s original column on the issue:

I spoke on Monday afternoon to two senior editors at The Times. Both agreed that the photo was a regrettable choice. The dominant image with an article should reflect the overall point of the article and the reason for its newsworthiness.

“This did not represent the essence of the story, which was clearly the moment of the Israeli soldier being stabbed,” said Michele McNally, the assistant managing editor in charge of photography.

… The selection of the Palestinian mother’s image with the article was an effort to achieve balance, but such an effort was not appropriate in this case, Ms. McNally said.

So, if the photo was inappropriate when it was first posted, why isn’t it inappropriate now? Sullivan’s follow-up column says this:

Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, … explained that “except to correct factual errors, we very rarely change or delete published content. The stories that remain accessible through our website constitute our electronic archive of what The Times has actually published, parallel to the print and microfilm versions of our archive that we have always maintained. My colleagues and I frequently receive requests to alter or delete published material from our archive, for a wide range of reasons. We explain that our policy is not to do so. Other than for factual errors, if we routinely went back into a story published days, weeks or years earlier – rewriting, re-editing, adding or deleting photos or other elements – pretty soon our archive would cease to be an archive at all.”

Evidently, then, the Times’ reason for not correcting what it believes to have been a misjudgement is “we don’t have time.” I call BS.

First, citing “a wide range of reasons” lumps together the people who want to scrub evidence of past misdeeds, the people who have concerns about fairness, and people who want Walter Duranty held to account. Smart people work for the Times. Surely they can sort requests for changes into categories and vary their responses accordingly.

Second, even if we accept the argument that the Times could not afford to reconsider every old story based on a complaint, that shouldn’t be a factor in this case. The Times already has reconsidered and decided it was wrong.

Third, there is no reason why the website has to be “our electronic archive of what The Times has actually published.” As Corbett acknowledges, that archive already exists on paper and microfilm (and there are electronic forms such as Nexis, too). Why does the Times have to make the site yet another untouchable archive? That’s a gross misreading of how the internet should work. Instead of thinking of the website as yet another archive full of errors and misjudgments, the Times should treat its site as its audience probably does: As the paper’s reporting made as fair and accurate as possible by the malleability of web pages and the wisdom that comes with time.

When you look up a story in microfilm, or paw through yellowing pages of newsprint, you get the full context of its publication. It’s clear to the user that this is simply a snapshot of what the paper printed on a particular date, in a particular edition. Online, you see stories in isolation. A five-year-old story can pop up in a search almost as easily as an article from today. Yes, the story will have a timestamp — but it exists in a fluid medium. The expectations are different. To deny that is to live in the past.

In this case, since the paper has already decided the photo placement is poor, it should make that simple fix to the page and attach a short note acknowledging the change and linking to Sullivan’s original column.

Questions about the inviolability of online posts are only going to get more pointed. A recent column in the New Scientist by a law professor, Woodrow Hartzog, noted the new California law giving people a limited right to force sites to remove content they posted as youths. He also mentioned far broader proposals in Europe. Since there’s apparently a buck to be made in claiming to be able to manage online reputations, news media can expect more and more appeals.

If journalists are going to take a stand on preserving older stories, they should be careful not to be so obdurate that they lose the moral high ground. They’ve already got some stinky bedfellows — the sites that charge money to remove mugshots.  The news media are always a convenient patsy when some politician wants to score points. Sounding callous about correcting misjudgments is just painting a target on their collective schnozz.

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