Does Being a Journalist on the Internet Mean Never Having to Say You’re Sorry?

Since the NSA surveillance story broke, a number of journalists (e.g., at Mother Jones and Nation) have noted that the original reporting by Glenn Greenwald/The Guardian and Barton Gellman/Washington Post was flawed, perhaps profoundly so. Greenwald and Gelman have been sort-of backpedaling from some of their original claims, although neither to my knowledge has given a full and clear accounting of what they got wrong and why.

In the entirely dead tree publishing era of newspapers, journalists who made mistakes in reporting and subsequently walked a story back had no choice but to make a clean breast of things: The hard evidence of their errors was right there on every subscriber’s kitchen table. But in the online era, journalists can revise their stories without being specific about what details they have changed and why.

As I do not have the technical skill to evaluate how much the authors of the original NSA stories revised their articles in light of emerging evidence uncovered by other journalists, I am grateful to Ed Bott for having saved Gellman’s original and revised NSA stories and then posting this file with both articles compared side-by-side.

Bott’s work allows everyone to make their own judgement about whether the Post’s revisions reflect merely the correction of small errors or are a symptom of seriously sloppy journalism the first time around (If it hasn’t happened yet, I hope someone does the same with the Greenwald/Guardian stories). But should the provision of this valuable service be left to energetic volunteers outside of a newspaper’s operations? I believe it would be better practice for all newspapers to include a link to the original versions of subsequently edited breaking stories (e.g., “Click here to see how we have changed our reporting since this story broke”). It might keep Internet-era journalists more honest and careful to know that their breaking stories will be as available to future readers as were those of journalists in the dead tree publishing era.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.