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The accountability of online news

A piece in the Toronto Standard today this week demands more accountability for online news. Amelia Schonbek uses CBC’s Rob Ford called 911 and used the F-bomb story (from almost two months ago) as a way to illustrate her point that online news is not accountable enough to its readers.

(F)ew have discussed a potentially more serious issue: the manner in which CBC.ca published and revised its reporting as the story developed. … The CBC’s original story was published at 5:18 a.m. on October 27. Over the course of the day, it went through several updates. By the time it was last updated, after 9 p.m. the same night, it had become a completely different piece—new information had been added, old information had disappeared, and it even had a different headline.

Schonbek is quick to point out many newspapers often do this, but she writes this is wrong because:

There was no way for anyone to revisit and assess the original content. It was made invisible.

I don’t know that I buy that. I can’t turn back the clock to compare the two stories, but I do believe the CBC stood by its story. There was no correction, no retraction. If anything, the CBC probably moved the story forward by adding Ford’s apology and denial, as well as the comments made by his brother, Doug Ford. To me, this is all good reporting and what the story has become.

It’s important to remember that with any story, the story that is posted at 5:18 a.m. is bound to change throughout the day into something different by 9 p.m.

Schonbek does propose changes to how online news is posted to make it more “transparent” to its readers:

Newspapers could, for instance, implement a tab system: at every URL, a reader would be able to click through different versions of the story in different tabs, each of which would be time-stamped. The most recent version would appear on top, but if readers wanted to reference past reporting, they could simply flick through the tabs and compare versions.

While an interesting idea, I don’t think this is at all practical. Online news consumers, for the most part, would never read all that content, they just don’t care that much.

The biggest question I have after reading this piece, and other pieces like it, is: Why do we not criticize 24 hour news stations, such as CNN, in the same way we criticize online news?

In her piece, Schonbek also references how (some) of the media killed Gabrielle Giffords back in January. Fair enough, but it wasn’t just online news that got that wrong, CNN also reported the congresswoman had been killed. CNN even said it had confirmed it “with CNN sources.” Now, whether CNN’s sources were tweets from NPR and Reuters remains to be seen, but CNN still killed the congresswoman. And then, she was brought back to life and no one demonized the news network for their misreporting.

(I’m not saying online news reports should not correct errors, or point out to readers when they change something that was wrong in their copy, but I do not believe that to be the case here. As far as I know, CBC continues to stand by their original story.)

News networks are often filled with erroneous reports throughout the day as a story develops because, well, a story is developing. If the Internet did not exist, then that CBC story would have been read on air first thing in the morning, then changed, amended and moved forward as the day went on. One would assume the story you would hear on the radio on your way into work would be nothing near what you’d hear on the way home.

Where is the demand for accountability with 24-hour news networks? Why are we demanding online news be held to a higher standard than the rest?

Filed under journalism Online news Broadcast news Broadcast journalism CBC CNN Reuters Accountability

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