The world is still adjusting to the idea of instant news on the Internet and the ability to easily change and rewrite history in many ways. The Internet has, for better or worse, completely changed the way reporting can be done with a very simple tool: the ability to update pieces after launch. This has many upsides as it means new information can be added to easily augment or complete stories to provide more information to readers and keeping pieces timely. However, there is a hefty potential downside, where sites can cover up and completely rewrite stories without any informing, correcting major errors without comment or just flat out change the story they’re covering.
The New York Times is most recently guilty of this as a NewsDiff’s comparison of their story on Ellen Pao’s resignation shows. The original story was written by Mike Isaac who titled it “Ellen Pao Is Stepping Down as Reddit’s Chief” and presented a relatively neutral and information driven piece on the situation as a business technologies writer. That story, though, is not what you’d find if you went to the New York Times now, because nearly all of it was rewritten by David Streitfeld with reporting by Vindu Goel in San Francisco and published on the front page. It is titled “It’s Silicon Valley 2, Ellen Pao 0: Fighter of Sexism Is Out at Reddit” and is much more of an opinion heavy piece compared to the previous one.
The differences are astounding, as anyone who viewed the original article would return and find it replaced with a wholly other story dealing primarily with sexism around Reddit and how Ellen Pao was a “hero to many.” While the original article included the sentence “Many Reddit users blamed Ms. Pao directly in the hours after Ms. Taylor’s firing, flooding Reddit’s forums with vitriolic messages — often racist and misogynistic — calling for Ms. Pao’s ouster” it was the only instance of citing sexism or misogyny in the original article, as, particularly recently, users’ comments towards Pao were generally unkind. The story also originally had a small mention of her previous and ongoing court room drama regarding gender discrimination that was significantly increased in the rewrite, putting in almost a small other article on the state of that trial there.
The issue here in many ways has to deal with the fact that David Streitfeld’s updated story has almost nothing in common with Mike Isaac’s original story. Only 87 words carried over to the new version, and while allowing for a few more in just format changes, that is an incredibly small amount of the 477 words that were in the original article. The tone, the angle, the presentation, and what the article was attempting to accomplish are vastly different things that merit a separate piece instead of a complete rewrite.
Not that the New York Times is alone in this issue of abusing rewrites, though. Earlier this year the Associated Press caused a major uproar when they reported Hilary Clinton was running a homebrew email server from her home. This story was updated numerous times throughout the day with archive sites not catching all of it, though ZDNet has a very good run down of the situation with screenshots of the original. By the end of the day the story was about the Benghazi email probe instead of the original story about running a homebrew email that was essentially disproven once people looked into it. Said story created the immortal Eric Hoteham as a sockpuppet instead of what it actually was, a typo on Clinton staffer Eric Hothem’s name.
It was all on the same URL, and the same supposed story, but like the New York Times, the final product bore little resemblance to what was originally there and never informed people of that. By the time they’d changed it, the damage was done and it was reported throughout the net and the Associated Press has never, to my knowledge, formally acknowledged the issues with its original reports.
This is a challenge that journalism faces today—how to fairly update and keep stories current while informing readers as best we can. The Internet has a lot of tools that can be used to drastically improve journalism, with unparalleled communication speed, research ability, reach, and the ability to make sure stories have the latest and best information. However, like many tools, it can be misused and it appears in these cases by the lack of any notification of what was changed, or why, that there’s still a lot for the industry to learn as it struggles to transform itself from a print based medium to an online resource.
What are your thoughts on Internet journalism? How do you think the field needs to evolve? Do you think this type of rewriting without notification is dishonest? Share your thoughts below!