Back when the news was printed on dead trees, fixing mistakes or changing the tone of a story was impossible without stopping the presses and printing a whole new version. That’s no longer the case thanks to the Internet. News stories can now be updated in the blink of an eye.
But as the New York Times has discovered on more than one occasion, that power can be both a blessing and a curse.
In the latest dust-up over its post-publication editing process, the Times has come under fire for changes to the tone of a story that the paper ran about Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders. As far as some Sanders supporters are concerned, the editing is a sign of how willing the paper is to twist the record to favor his rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The original story was fairly complimentary toward Sanders’ record of promoting public-spirited legislation in Congress. It admitted that his record of actually succeeding in getting such bills passed was not great, but the tone of the piece was favorable enough that the Sanders campaign shared it as though it were an endorsement.
The story remained unchanged for nearly 10 hours—before it was edited multiple times over the following few hours into Wednesday morning. As originally reported in a Medium post and described by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone, passages that previously seemed complimentary were watered down while comments that could be interpreted as favorable were weakened or removed. No editorial notes were added.
Initially, the only response from the Times to questions about its editing was a comment from a spokeswoman that this was a routine story that got routine handling by editors. Then executive editor Dean Baquet responded to Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple about the changes, saying Times editors made some additions because they thought the story needed more “context.”
We thought the original version of the story didn’t grapple with the question of what his legislative record says about what kind of president he would be. It was a very good story, but it needed some context. That got added. We actually do go in and make changes in stories when we think they need some additional context. It is actually pretty common.
Baquet is right about one thing: The kind of editing the Sanders story got is fairly common—and not just at the New York Times but plenty of other places as well. And why not? It’s so easy now to change a story, to add a comment, or tweak a description. Plenty of media outlets do it. The Times response in almost every case is to say, “This is just the way things are done—move on, nothing to see here.” But is this the right approach?
New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has written critically about the paper’s post-publication editing of stories in the past, and she has recommended on numerous occasions that the paper should be more transparent about significant changes. But there seems to be little appetite to follow through on those recommendations.
The problem for the Times is that it is so huge and influential that it has a giant target painted on its back, especially when a story is politically sensitive. People already believe all kinds of conspiracy theories about why the paper covers or doesn’t cover certain things, and incidents like the Sanders story just confirm those suspicions.
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It doesn’t help that the Times rarely talks about the changes made to specific stories unless forced to do so and that it provides no easy way to compare with previous versions. Luckily, online sleuths have a tool called NewsDiffs (co-founded by former Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee) that archives multiple iterations of news stories, making the comparison process a fairly straightforward task.
Why don’t newspapers provide these kinds of tools themselves? Presumably, it is because they are uncomfortable with the amount of transparency that would provide into the editing process, which is still oriented towards pretending that mistakes never happen. Only when those mistakes explode into public view—as they did with a poorly-sourced story about the Justice Department investigating Clinton’s handling of email—does it become obvious.
The Times also doesn’t help its case by taking the same “editing after the fact is routine” approach in every situation. Readers might be prepared to accept that tweaking a word or a phrase is no big deal. But when a story is changed to the extent that the meaning changes, it’s a little disingenuous to pretend that this doesn’t matter.
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In one recent case, the Times ran a story about a fairly significant political and social event—namely, the FBI trying to force Apple to help it unlock a terrorist’s phone. The story included a fascinating series of paragraphs about the potential impact such a decision would have on China’s attitude towards encryption. A few hours later, however, those passages had been completely removed without any explanation whatsoever.
In another case, a story about a somewhat less politically sensitive topic—the turmoil at the online community Reddit—was published as another relatively straightforward news story written by Mike Isaac. Hours later, the original had been completely rewritten by David Streitfield as an opinion piece. Why? Was the original inaccurate? If not, why not run the opinion piece as something separate instead of disappearing the first one? No one knows.
Obviously, adding editor’s notes to every story that has had any changes at all would be unwieldy for the Times or anyone else, and many readers probably don’t care in most cases. But for stories that actually do matter—and those in which wholesale changes have been made—it would be easy enough to provide previous versions with a note, the way Wikipedia does when pages change. Pretending that this doesn’t happen, or that it only involves routine tweaking, isn’t doing the Times any favors in the trust department.