Corrections in the Web Age: The Case of the New York Times' Terror Error

In the summer of 2002, of course, many Americans had little patience for arguments about the Taliban's status as a terrorist organization. The Taliban had given Al Qaeda a haven; Al Qaeda had attacked the United States; did anything else matter?

But the question mattered profoundly to Lindh and his family. "It is no small thing to accuse a person of being a terrorist, or of providing assistance to or conspiring with a terrorist organization," Frank Lindh says. "It's basically calling the person a murderer." His son, John, maintained that his purpose in joining the Taliban army had been to defend Muslim civilians from attacks by the insurgents who would later come to be known as the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance.

The record of the Lindh legal proceeding shows that federal prosecutors wanted very badly to hang the "terrorist" label on Lindh, but they couldn't: either they didn't have the evidence, or they had some other reason to drop all of the terrorism-related charges. As New York Times Justice Department correspondent David Johnston reported in a front page companion piece to Lewis's story on July 16, 2002, U.S. officials "had grown skeptical that Mr. Lindh played any meaningful role in Islamic terrorism." They allowed Lindh to limit his guilty plea to two violations of the Taliban economic sanctions.

Lindh's statement to the court carefully maintained this distinction. He said: "I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to December. In the course of doing so, I carried a rifle and two grenades. I did so knowingly and willingly knowing that it was illegal."

Lewis's mistaken description of the Taliban as a federally sanctioned terrorist organization was therefore far from a minor detail. For Lindh and his sympathizers, it was the crux of the story.

Moreover, the nature of Lindh's crime and punishment was precisely what KQED's Forum had planned to focus on -- until the Times' error got in the way. "It definitely affected the tone of the show and derailed us," says Dan Zoll, a senior producer for KQED. "Especially because this was such a high-profile case, I was definitely surprised to find that such an important fact had been incorrect."

After the KQED show hoisted the mistake into the spotlight, MediaBugs, an online service for recording and fixing problems in news coverage, filed an error report and contacted the Times about the matter. And within a week, the Times had corrected the error -- in a way.

If you look up that July 16, 2002, story today, you find the words "correction appended" inserted, a little awkwardly, between the byline and the first paragraph. And if you press "next page" three more times to get to the conclusion of the story and scroll all the way down, you'll find the following notice:

"Correction: This article gives an imprecise explanation for why providing assistance to the Taliban was a felony. Executive orders by Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush forbade such assistance because the Taliban was considered a threat to the United States and had provided haven to Al Qaeda, but those orders did not declare the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. (The error was brought to The Times's attention after related news reports in June 2011.)"

One might quibble with this wording's halfhearted walk-back: After all, the article's explanation wasn't "imprecise" -- it was wrong. But correction notices have a long history of defensive phrasing; minimizing your missteps is human nature. The main thing is that the Times noted, and corrected, its goof. 

Yet the paper did not edit the story's original text to reflect the correction. The same erroneous 14 words still sit, live, on the Times' website. To learn that they've been superseded, you have to click through three more pages. (Or, if you're really unlucky, Google might send you to a different version of the same story that shows no trace at all of any correction.)

Philip Corbett, the Times' associate managing editor for standards, explained in an email, "For practical and technical reasons in this case, we decided simply to append the correction, rather than trying to rewrite a passage in a nine-year-old article." (Editor's note: The Atlantic approaches corrections on a case-by-case basis. However, in a similar situation, we would probably leave the original wording intact but provide a linked asterisk at that spot in the text, which would take you to the full correction at the end of the piece.)

Is that enough? Corrections expert Craig Silverman, author of the book and blog "Regret the Error" and Columbia Journalism Review columnist (he is also an adviser to MediaBugs), doesn't think so.

"If you only read the first two pages of that story," Silverman says, "you're not going to get to the correction, and you're going to get the mistaken piece of information, and so it's just not effective. That's a very long article. What percent of people are going to read to the end of that and get to the correction, or even know that 'correction appended' means that it's necessarily on the exact last page? The basic principle of 'Let's make sure that this error stops spreading' is not really being upheld here."

Institutions like the Times honed their correction practices in the age of print, when appending a notice was the best feasible option. But an always-available digital page is also always editable -- and is part of a rapidly evolving news ecosystem in which stopping the spread of misinformation is more important as ever. Post-publication edits can uphold that principle without being furtive or seeming to rewrite history. Any changes to long-published articles can be made transparently, either in the text of an accompanying correction notice or in an archive of previous story versions

The New York Times has maintained a useful, comprehensive website for 16 years now. Today, the digital edition is already eclipsing the paper product as its primary distribution channel. But in the digital age, serving as "paper of record" carries new burdens. It's long past time for the Times, as the acknowledged leader of the verifiable-and-accountable wing of the American press, to take more active responsibility for the facts in its custody.

* * *

In American newspaper journalism, the New York Times sets the standard for commitment to accuracy -- notwithstanding its well-known missteps of the last decade, from Jayson Blair's fabrication to its Iraq war weapons-of-mass-destruction coverage. "The Times puts more energy and resources into corrections than probably any other news organization out there," says Craig Silverman.

The newspaper's commitment to fixing even tiny errors has opened it up to mockery over the years. Here's Michael Kinsley, writing in 2009 (in, er, the Washington Post): "Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily 'Corrections' column in the New York Times? ... the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous."

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Presented by

Scott Rosenberg & Mark Follman

Scott Rosenberg is director and Mark Follman is associate director of MediaBugs, a public service for tracking and fixing errors in news coverage.

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