Collusion, Corrections And ZOMBIE FACTS That Refuse To Die

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. | Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU

“A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.” Apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain, few observations sum up as succinctly the problem of digital media’s insufficient and haphazard way of dealing with corrections. In fact, too many major online news platforms barely deal with the issue at all.

There’s no getting around the fact that we read news differently than did our grandparents. Online news distribution has its advantages (speed, interactivity, reach) but also presents problems, the most prevalent of which is the widespread and unchecked repetition of incorrect stories. Washington Post media critic and former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wraps up the problem clearly, saying that “Corrections are important, and often represent the dividing line between a responsible news organization and an irresponsible one. But they rarely get even a fraction of the attention that the original error gets. It is impossible to put the genie back in the bottle.”

Gimme sensation, not facts

The disparity in readership of corrections versus the original error tells the tale, but media think tanks and observers haven’t yet focused on this issue. In 2009, Harvard’s Nieman Foundation tried to get its hands around online corrections, and merely pointed out legacy newsroom dynamics that still exist, namely: unwillingness to recognize that errors are numerous; hesitancy in offering corrections; and that reader complaints are often ignored or denied. But these are long-standing problems not unique to online content and instead speak to historic newsroom culture. (As a newsroom lawyer, I once instructed a story to be corrected, and the miffed reporter who erred hasn’t talked to me since. That was eight years ago).

The 2009 Nieman report ended with the observation that “[T]here is the now-legendary claim that the interactive nature of digital media makes mistakes quicker to be identified and corrected. This premise needs to be tested and evaluated by independent research.” Unfortunately, the media industry has by and large not followed through.

In a 2014 interview with the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) titled “Corrections Don’t Go Viral,” David Mikkelson, part of the husband-and-wife team who run the fact-checking website Snopes said “Everyone knows the original sensational stories are much more interesting than the mundane corrections.”

The issue of disparity between readership of the original versus that of a corrected story hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed. CJR pointed out in the article that “Now, by the time a story’s debunked, it has already traveled, with no guarantee that readers will navigate back to the original source — or any source at all — to see a corrected version.” CJR highlighted a false story about a woman with three breasts was shared almost 190,000 times on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, but stories correcting the record only generated about a third as many shares.

One experiment in measuring the disparity is called Emergent, produced by Craig Silverman as part of a fellowship at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Emergent tracks suspect rumors as they manifest online and measures the disparity between posts accepting the original and those posting corrections. While Emergent has not yet taken on the media’s big-impact errors, some of their data underscores the disparity problem. A hoax story about Kentucky Fried Chicken moving into the marijuana business was shared 225,825 times, while posts debunking it were shared only 2,788 times. The misinterpretation of a Breitbart story inferring that a Dallas court was following Sharia law was shared 2,048 times, while the misinterpretation was challenged online only 1,753 times.

A bug, not a feature

The problem may lie with the way online corrections or tweets are formatted. Few people are as experienced and have the insight of journalist and entrepreneur Elizabeth Spiers, who helped finance, structure and/or edit such successful websites as Dealbreaker, AboveTheLaw, Fashionista and, most infamously, Gawker. When asked about online corrections, Spiers told me that “Historically, digital outlets that produce original news are pretty good about this, and in the early days, they were actually better than legacy media outlets that weren’t online because corrections were appended directly to the article, whereas newspapers would bury them, often in an entirely different section of the paper under the general heading, ‘Corrections’, and they wouldn’t be published immediately.”

Where our grandparents would regularly check the print paper’s “Corrections” section, few news platforms create a “Corrections” section to which corrected stories are tagged. Spiers explains the logic behind this: “In practice, users don’t pay much attention to tags unless they’re explicitly searching for related information.” Although as a media lawyer and ethics professor I teach reporters to check for a correction before citing an article, Spiers is correct: that extra step isn’t made by ordinary readers.

TL; DR

The placement of corrections (and the line telling readers that a previous story has been corrected, called a “trashline”) is critical to improving the reliability of online publications. Spiers says that “My ideal is a note at the top that the article has been corrected or updated, [the trashline] and explanations or corrections at the bottom.”

Without trashlines, merely appending a correction to the bottom of a story runs headlong into the problem of “TL; DR”: internet shorthand for “too long; didn’t read,” used to indicate that one didn’t read the whole text. Given that too many people do not read an entire online article, it’s too easy for readers — and lazy reporters or researchers — to miss the correction, which all too often does not bear the same place of prominence as the original.

To their credit, some web-based news platforms like ProPublica place their trashline right under the headline before the text, and may even add the word “Correction” to the new headline. But many news platforms have either no policy or suspiciously squishy guidelines. National Public Radio erred in a March 12, 2018 story accusing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of “campaigning” for GOP congressional candidate Rick Saccone, a possible violation of the Hatch Act. But the corrected version lacks a trashline or any indicia that the story was corrected at all: the reader has to scroll eleven pages down to learn that Zinke was making an official appearance to announce a grant program for reclaiming abandoned coal mines.

Similarly, The Guardian (a British newspaper) adds corrections merely at the end of the story, even though the correction might change the tone or tenor of the original, thus perpetuating the narrative. Last month, The Guardian ran a story titled “Man found guilty of planning terror attack on Cumbria gay event.” The original story, playing to their readers’ predictable anti-gun sentiments had reported that an “assault rifle” had been found in his apartment. Despite using the hot button words “assault weapon,” the correction — not marked as a correction or even an update at the top — merely says at the bottom that “This article was amended on 7 February 2018. An earlier version incorrectly referred to evidence that an assault rifle was found in Stables’ bedroom. It was an air rifle.” Oh, well, never mind then.

Zombie Facts: The errors or lies that won’t die

Known for her common sense, Sullivan adds that the differential between readership of the correction and readership of the original error is why “it’s so crucial to make every effort to get it right to begin with.” Journalists of all stripes make errors. That’s just human nature. The problem is that online news delivery (for the most part) does not lend itself to clarity, and corrections are so poorly handled that erroneous news stories set the narrative, and only the most intrepid readers or researchers will dig through the narrative’s lifecycle to get to the truth. And thus begins the creation of the “Zombie Fact.”

Perhaps the most telling Zombie Fact is the evergreen “Bush Plastic Turkey.” At least 70 reports of President George W. Bush serving a “plastic turkey” as a photo-op with troops in Iraq made their way online in 2003, repeated by bloggers, well-known journalists and political figures including John F. Kerry, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. The New York Times also took the bait and it took the Times a week to correct their story. By then it was too late. Australian columnist Tim Blair noted in an interview that as a result it became a real theme in so many people’s minds, with an almost religious aspect to it: “If you’re of the anti-Bush faith, it’s a touchstone. It’s the book of turkey.” And of course, there are still people today who believe that President Bush callously and superficially served a plastic turkey to American troops for publicity’s sake. The narrative was served, and the damage was done.

“Birtherism” (the narrative that President Obama was born in Kenya) is a Zombie Fact that persists to this day. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where and when that first became injected into the digital news stream, and accounts differ wildly. What is known as a certainty is that as early as 2004, a bowdlerized version of an AP story appearing in a Kenyan newspaper made the claim. Later on, and not helping the situation, then-Senator Obama’s own literary agent added the Zombie Fact that he was born in Kenya to a promotional booklet touting one of Obama’s books. Adding subtle credence to the narrative, the Hillary Clinton campaign was forced to apologize after distributing a photograph of Obama in an Indonesian costume. The Obama campaign complained — quite rightly — that this was a “dog whistle” stoking the fire of the birther narrative. Finally, the narrative became one of the first attention-getters for the Trump campaign in 2016, and although everyone else had given it up, Trump continued to demand “proof” of Obama’s citizenship as late as 2017. Like the Bush Plastic Turkey, there are still people who believe that the former president is not an American-born citizen. The narrative was served, and the damage was done.

Left-leaning news organizations have built an entire business model around the “Putin/Trump Collusion” narrative. The most recent Zombie Fact in this circus is the false allegation that last September, WikiLeaks (in cahoots with unnamed “Russians”) had secretly offered the Trump campaign and Donald Trump himself special access to damaging Democratic National Committee emails before they were published on the internet. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald did a substantial autopsy on the canard, noting that “hours after CNN broadcast its story — and then hyped it over and over and over — the Washington Post reported that CNN got the key fact of the story wrong: The email was not dated September 4, as CNN claimed, but rather September 14 — which means it was sent “after WikiLeaks had already published access to the DNC emails online.” Although CNN ended up correcting the story, the Zombie Fact lives on in the fevered mind of Adam Schiff and the #Resist crowd. (One can’t help but be reminded of Dan Rather’s “fake but accurate” style of journalism still practiced by cheerleading media operatives). So far, there have been no credible or concrete facts showing any such collusion, but still, the narrative was served, and the damage was done.

I want to believe

In his Intercept article about the Trump/Wikileaks canard, Greenwald is more skeptical about the way corrections are ignored, and points to political operatives who despite having ought to know that their “source” is incorrect, go ahead and republish them anyway: “To begin with, it’s hard to overstate how fast, far, and wide this false story traveled. Democratic Party pundits, operatives, and journalists with huge social media platforms predictably jumped on the story immediately, announcing that it proved collusion between Trump and Russia (through WikiLeaks). One tweet from Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, claiming that this proved evidence of criminal collusion, was retweeted thousands and thousands of times in just a few hours (Lieu quietly deleted the tweet after I noted its falsity, and long after it went very viral, without ever telling his followers that the CNN story, and therefore his accusation, had been debunked).”

Greenwald touches on another aspect of ignoring corrections that are less nefarious but speak to the groupthink that infects today’s readers of political reporting: “It’s hard to quantify exactly how many people were deceived — filled with false news and propaganda — by the CNN story. But thanks to Democratic-loyal journalists and operatives who decree every Trump-Russia claim to be true without seeing any evidence, it’s certainly safe to say that many hundreds of thousands of people, almost certainly millions, were exposed to these false claims.”

A 2014 Pew Research Center study states the obvious fact that the trend is that “those with stronger ideological tendencies are more likely to surround themselves with like-minded opinions.” The desire for something to be true without any real evidence is nothing new. Like Agent Mulder’s desperate wish that there really are aliens out there, if you believe strongly enough that President Trump colluded with Russians to get elected, then you are pretty much inclined to ignore errors upon which you rely to make that case.

To those who read a fair amount of political reporting or engage in discourse online, I would remind you of Abraham Lincoln’s sage advice: “Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Charles Glasser was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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