A lesson in how to apologize, and the value of news as a process

Most journalists hate making mistakes, even small ones. And the big ones are so painful that there’s a tendency to try and hide them away, or distract the reader somehow so they don’t seem quite as awful — which helps explain why newspapers used to hide their corrections where no one could find them, or phrased them in such an inscrutable way that no one could figure out what the original mistake was.

Some of this tendency has even leaked into the online world, despite the fact that our ability to correct things quickly has never been stronger: news sites — even some of the more prominent ones — change their posts, in some cases dramatically, and then never say why or what the differences are, or post a cryptic update message.

Own your mistakes

That’s why it’s so refreshing to see someone really owning their mistake the way io9 editor Annalee Newitz did on Monday, with a story about the abuse of medical-research animals. And not only did Newitz fess up as directly as possible, but the end result is a great example of what can be gained from seeing a story like that as a process rather than a product or artifact that is punched out and shipped off.

In a nutshell, the io9 editor admits in her post that the story was written by a freelancer and should have been edited more aggressively before it was published. But it came in just before the Thanksgiving weekend, she said, and so it went up relatively untouched. Only when it had been published did it become obvious that it was severely one-sided, and factually questionable.

Newitz freely admits that as the editor, she “screwed up” by not editing the piece more forcefully. But what I found interesting is how she described what happened after the story appeared on the site — namely, the reaction from readers, and the multiple improvements in the article that occurred as a result:

“There was an immediate outcry in comments and on Twitter from people who were outraged, puzzled or concerned about the bias in the article. Scientists and ethicists came forward to correct errors (often angrily, but justifiably so)… as awful as this situation was, this is how social media journalism is supposed to work in its ideal form. I screwed up as an editor, and you caught it — within minutes.

Of course this mistake should never have happened, but I’m grateful that you called io9 on it and did more than just tell us we were wrong. Several scientists and philosophers spent time on their holidays to talk to George, and to write long, eloquent explanations of their perspectives in email. Thanks to your help, and our edits, the article as it stands does represent many sides of the issue.”

Building trust

Obviously, Newitz wishes that she had given the story more than a once-over, and regrets that it was published in such an unfinished state. Ideally, all of those scientists and concerned outsides who wrote in with suggestions and criticisms would have been part of the initial reporting around the topic, before the piece was ever published. But at the same time, the way it was improved is a great example of that process — even though it occurred after publication.

Just to stave off the inevitable criticisms of this point, I’m not saying sites should print any old garbage, safe in the knowledge that they can always update and/or correct it later when someone complains. And there is clearly a game that is often played where a site posts something untrue, benefits from the traffic, and then benefits even more when they update or correct the story.

That said, I think there is a public benefit to having this kind of process — as chaotic and unruly as it can be — play out in public, where everyone can see it. It’s part of what made Andy Carvin’s Twitter reporting during the Arab Spring so powerful (although he too was criticized for taking that approach). And kudos to Annalee Newitz for having the guts to let us see it happen. As Seth Mnookin pointed out, it makes me trust her more than I did before, not less.