What happens when an old story from The Evening News that contains an error surfaces on the Internet, as can easily happen these days.
The New York Times recently laid open this troubling problem in a column by their “public editor,” Clark Hoyt, entitled, “When Bad News Follows You.” Hoyt was frank and forthcoming about the problem:
“People are coming forward at the rate of roughly one a day to complain that they are being embarrassed, are worried about losing or not getting jobs, or may be losing customers because of the sudden prominence of old news articles that contain errors or were never followed up,” he said.
The example cited was a former New York City employee who is now a business consultant. When people “Google” his name, the first thing that pops up isn’t his business Web site – it’s a 20-year-old story that suggests he resigned under pressure following a scandal. In a short follow-up story days later, the Times had straightened out the misunderstanding – his leaving the city had nothing to do with the scandal. Yet what are prospective clients going to think when they see the old story?
The Times created this problem by using an aggressive search engine optimization process, which drives traffic to its Web site by pushing Times content to the top of search results on sites like Google and Yahoo.
We don’t do that at The Evening News, but the problem still exists. Either from our own archives, or from a link to another site that picked up one of our stories, it’s easy to find old stories from monroenews.com. And, just like at the Times, it’s good for us when old stories draw traffic to our Web site.
The problem faced by the Times is the volume – it would take several people working full-time to follow up on every complaint. So, as Hoyt explained, the Times is essentially doing nothing about the old errors.
It would be wrong, their editors feel, to go back and change the stories. That would be like fooling with the historical record. And besides, they couldn’t just take peoples’ word for whether a story was wrong – they would have to check on every fact that was challenged.
In many cases, the original story may not have been wrong – it’s just that circumstances have changed and the old story is misleading or confusing.
So, what are we doing about this at The Evening News. Two things.
One, we’re feeling our way along carefully, taking each case one at a time. We want to do everything we can to set the record straight, but we also want to be careful about the integrity of our archives.
Two, when we are told there is a problem with an old story, we check it out. And if we find the story is wrong, we fix it.
One thing we haven’t figured out is how to handle stories that aren’t wrong, but may be misleading because of changes in circumstances. Should we figure out a way to attach an explanation to the story in our electronic archives?
For example, a story about a conviction in our court system may be accurate. But if there was a later story about the conviction being overturned on appeal, do we have an obligation to attach the new story to the old one?
These aren’t easy issues. But we can commit to doing more than The New York Times seems to be doing.
We’ll make sure we take each complaint seriously and try to resolve it reasonably.