Mark Follman is associate director of MediaBugs, a website aimed at correcting errors in the news media by acting as a moderator between readers and journalists. In this Q&A, conducted by e-mail, Follman discusses the site, its objectives and issues of accuracy in online media.
Q. What is the objective of MediaBugs, and how will the site help “fix the news”?
A. Our primary objective with MediaBugs is to help improve the feedback loop between the public and newsrooms, both for alerting newsrooms to factual errors and for tracking corrections. With many news sites, the status quo on both counts is remarkably poor, as revealed in our recently published national study of corrections practices.
What constitutes a factual error in the news isn’t always clear-cut, of course — so an additional goal with MediaBugs is to create a useful public record of discussions around apparent errors. That way, even when there isn’t agreement or a clear resolution to an error report the public can still see how the discussion played out and decide what conclusion to draw.
Whether or not news organizations use the MediaBugs platform, we also want to encourage news sites everywhere to make good corrections practices a priority. That’s the idea behind the Report an Error Alliance — http://reportanerror.org/ — an offshoot project of MediaBugs with which we created an easy-to-use “report an error” button.
Ultimately, we hope that MediaBugs proves equally useful to newsrooms (often strapped for resources) and the public (often skeptical that news coverage is accurate) by serving as a quality forum focused on improving news accuracy.
Q. What types of errors do you see and get tips about? Are any themes emerging?
A. We’ve seen a pretty broad range. We focus on the substantive errors. At one point we queried our community of users, project advisers and others to see if we should even bother including typos and misspellings in the project; the consensus was that we should sidestep the small technical stuff — which can legitimately be fixed without notice, we think — and instead focus on errors that affect meaning and public understanding. That’s not to say that misspelling someone’s name never matters: There are such cases, as we detailed here: http://mediabugs.org/blog/2010/05/25/the-wall-street-journal-cavalier-about-corrections/.
Some of the most interesting mediabugs we’ve seen to date have been a matter of overreaching — news reporting that, under scrutiny, was not supported by facts. One case involved Wall Street Journal coverage of a potential shakeup at the Obama White House: http://mediabugs.org/blog/2010/11/10/wall-street-journal-obama/
Another involved controversial LA Weekly coverage of the terrible sexual assault in Cairo on CBS News reporter Lara Logan, for which LA Weekly eventually issued a correction notice.
Q. Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, and other critics say that cutbacks on copy editing are leading to more errors getting into print. What are your thoughts on the role of editing?
A. Well, hah, I guess that as a former news editor I’m a bit biased on this one — but actually, I can say that I value the role of the editor equally from a writer’s perspective. I know that the vast majority of my work as a writer has been stronger for having worked with a great editor.
In terms of news accuracy, the checks and balances provided by good editing are important for obvious reasons. (Although sometimes editors make errors in that process, and I appreciate when corrections specify that.) I don’t know if any studies have been published yet about the issue, but it seems pretty certain that all the editorial cutbacks in recent years probably have given rise to even more errors, both in print and online. The hyper-metabolism of online news probably doesn’t help.
Q. Thanks to online media, we have more information than ever before. But how can we trust what we read, see and hear?
A. I think there’s no doubt that the speed and proliferation of online information have created a crisis of confidence in this regard. Smart media consumers know to vet what they see and read — but increasingly that’s a more daunting, more exhausting chore. When big news institutions are being bamboozled by videos from James O’Keefe or citing unverified material from Facebook or Twitter, or are getting fooled by fake websites, it makes it even harder to know what’s authentic out there.
In fact, I think we are entering a boom market, of sorts, for transparency. More than ever people recognize the need for trusted sources and tools that help verify news and information online.
With the MediaBugs project we sometimes get accused of operating with a certain level of idealism, and I think we are indeed guilty of that in some ways! But while news accuracy and transparency may not be the most glamorous things to work on in journalism, I think they will become increasingly valuable in the public eye. It’s certainly a very interesting time to be working on these issues.