Commentary

Who to trust

washington-post

“Retracts” sort of. Editor’s note says no evidence “so far.”

Commentary

Add “stealth editing” to the credibility problems facing journalism in these days of fake news, false news, slanted news, biased news and all the other variations on “news” that leave many a reader wondering who and what to believe.

If you read much news online, no doubt you have already noticed the stories that keep shifting without ever letting on that anything significant has changed.

Here’s a perfect example from Alaska:

“A man jogging with his dogs on the Seward airport runway” before being mauled by a grizzly bear in the early morning darkness of a late October morning morphs into “a man walking with his dog (as in dog singular) on the Seward airport runway” with no indication given as to what the original story said, let alone any note of the correction or corrections made.

Noting corrections on stories seems to have become passe. It’s as if journalists think readers are  stupid and won’t notice. They seem to have forgotten the old truism that “you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

And that’s a problem.

Because once people figure out that you’re trying to fool them, only the fools will trust you. Others might still be willing to accept you as a better alternative for news than old Uncle Fred or their neighbor Ken, but they won’t put much faith in what you report.

The whole business of journalism in the U.S. today is in crisis from readers losing faith in what is reported because of crap like this.

Fake, fake, fake

Mainstream reporters these days are prone to get their panties in a bunch about “fake news” – as in the totally made-up news coming from outlaw Russians, a bunch of kids in Macedonia or wherever.

They need to do a little soul-searching because their behaviors are in part responsible for the growth of fake news.

Look at this from the reader’s side.

If you can’t figure out what media to trust, why bother trying. It’s a lot simpler to just pick the online “news” story that offers up some version of what you’d like to hear.  There were a lot of these sort of stories being shared during the last Presidential election.

The most popular, according to a BuzzFeed.com analysis?

“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump For President, Releases Statement.”

But, of course. The first pope from South America would be the one to break with a couple hundred years of precedent on the Vatican staying out of U.S. presidential races in order to endorse a twice-divorced,  non-Catholic for the job of leader of the free world.

You know those crazy Argentinians.

The Pope Francis story was so obviously a phony that it didn’t even start as fake news. It began as satire, although as Larry Press, a professor of Information Systems at California State University notes, who reads those “about” pages explaining what a website is doing. 

The Onion, probably the most famous of satirical websites, regularly fools people with its stories. Why shouldn’t it? It proclaims itself as “America’s Finest News Source” right in the middle of its homepage.

It revealed just today that “Bloodied, Bruised (Secretary of State) John Kerry Emerges Victorious at Kickboxing Tournament in Bangkok Prison” and provided the photo to prove it.

But let’s be real. Most people can sort out most of this.  The problems only arise when large numbers of  people start sharing fake news stories as real because they don’t trust the real reporting in the mainstream media.

Why don’t they trust it? Maybe because reporters and news organizations don’t act very trustworthy.

Whoa-poe

The once highly respected Washington Post, which has been all over the idea that Russian hackers got Trump elected President, is now caught up in a mess that involves stealth editing, significant reporting errors and once again alleged Russian hackers. Reporters of a certain age grew up with an admiration for the Post as the newspaper that broke the Watergate story.

The shine has been wearing off in recent years. The Post’s latest problems started with this:

“Russian hackers penetrated U.S. electricity grid through a utility in Vermont, U.S.officials say.” 

Russians hacking into the U.S. electric grid has havoc written all over it. Once they get into a utility in Vermont, they have a chance to mess with the entire East Coast power grid.

Then the story became this:

 “Russian operation hacked a Vermont utility, showing risk to the U.S. electrical grid security, official says.”  

Only the latter headline was misleading, too, because if you read the story below (which you now find at the same URL as the original story saying the grid was “penetrated”), you find a statement from the “hacked” utility in question saying it “detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.”

So, in other words, the Russians penetrated nothing. In reality they didn’t even hack a Vermont utility.  They, if it was the Russians, hacked a laptop used by someone at the utility.

And the story has how become this:

“Russian government hackers do not appear to have targeted Vermont utility, say people close to investigation”

The latest story adds something of a confession that “the Post initially reported incorrectly that the country’s electric grid had been penetrated through a Vermont utility. After Burlington Electric released its statement saying that the potentially compromised laptop had not been connected to the grid, The Post immediately corrected its article and later added an editor’s note explaining the change.”

But that isn’t exactly what happened, as more than a few people have noted. Kalev Leetaru, a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, has a good take on the issue here at Forbes.com.

What’s new?

Leetaru is clearly not impressed with the quality of the Post’s editing or the news organization’s ethics.

“Only after numerous (news) outlets called out the Post’s changes did the newspaper finally append an editorial note at the very bottom of the article more than half a day later saying ‘an earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid,'” he writes. “‘Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.’

“Yet, even this correction is not a true reflection of public facts as known. The utility indicated only that a laptop was found to contain malware that has previously been associated with Russian hackers. As many pointed out, the malware in question is actually available for purchase online, meaning anyone could have used it and its mere presence is not a guarantee of Russian government involvement. Moreover, a malware infection can come from many sources, including visiting malicious websites and thus the mere presence of malware on a laptop computer does not necessarily indicate that Russian government hackers launched a coordinated hacking campaign to penetrate that machine.”

Leetaru’s report on “‘Fake News’ And How The Washington Post Rewrote Its Story on Russian Hacking Of The Power Grid” came a day before the Post’s own, belated admission there appeared to be no hacking. The Post offered no real explanation of what happened in the reporting process, but it is interesting to note the original story was bylined Juliet Eilperin and Adam Entous,” while the byline on the story saying there was no story shifted to Ellen Nakashima and Eilperin.

Leetaru showed little sympathy for the fact the Post’s first reaction to a story in shambles  was to resort to the sort of stealth editing that has become the norm for many online news outlets these days.

No one wants to be wrong

Journalists trying to avoid responsiblity for mistakes is not exactly a new phenomenon. Most journalists don’t like to write corrections. It’s embarrassing.

And sometimes their bosses really don’t like it.

Twenty years ago at the now defunct Anchorage Daily News, the once dominate newspaper in Alaska’s largest city, reporters who made a mistake in a story had to write a memo explaining in detail how and why the error happened.

The correction memos went in a reporter’s personnel file. They provided a great incentive to avoid writing corrections if at all possible.

There is no way to go back and determine how many hundreds or thousands or millions of mistakes were allowed to stand at newspapers in the past across the country so reporters and editors could avoid responsibility for mistakes. But it’s quite likely more stories get corrected now because it’s easy to do online, and because the changes can be made almost unseen.

If you correct a story and make no note of it, whose to know, right?

Well, only the people who read the first story and then later versions, or trouble makers like Leetaru who can go to the Wayback Machine and sometimes find earlier archived versions of the story.

And then somebody gets caught out. And it never looks good for journalism when journalists get caught trying to cover up mistakes. It makes them look downright dishonest.

Fixing a typo or correcting a misspelled name? Fine. People can understand those changes being made online without a correction though misspelled names were, ironically enough, the main things to warrant a printed correction in the old days of print journalism.

As a reporter then, it was always laughable how many correction memos got written about misspelled names, and how few got written about major, substantive errors in stories. And now one sees websites continuing this trend by trying to hide major, substantive errors in stories by stealth editing.

It does a serious disservice to journalism.

As a reporter for a long time, I can empathize with reporters who screw up. It happens. We all make mistakes all of the time.

Journalism is an imperfect and difficult business. It’s not a simple as putting together a Big Mac: “two, all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onions, pickles on a sesame seed bun.”

Journalism is cooking with no recipe and a 10,000 ingredients. Some of the meals are sure to come out a mess.

But if journalists aren’t honest about this, if they prefer to play some little game in which they pretended the mistakes didn’t happen and can be covered up without readers noticing, how can anyone trust them?

Advertisements

1 reply »

  1. How about the practice of rerunning and profiting off of old news? The second most read story on ADN today (1/18/17) is about the NOLS bear maulings written by some guy named Medred back in 2012. Lots of new clicks for them and not much work involved. I assume you’re getting a percentage, Craig?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s