Monday, February 23, 2009...11:50 am

When online journalism = Stalinism

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Interesting post on the FT’s Alphaville blog [from last week, but I’ve only just caught up with it]. Reuters files a story based on an FT interview with Luo Ping, a director-general at the China Banking Regulatory Commission. In the course of it, Mr Luo passes comment on the current US policy of monetary loosening:

Mr Luo, whose English tends toward the colloquial, added: “We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion [$1,000bn-$2,000bn] . . .we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do.”

What does Reuters do? Decides on balance to edit out the paragraph to leave the interview a bit safer for US/Chinese relations. Well – fair enough. 

Except that the Implode-Explode blog reports that it had received an early version of the Reuters story with this paragraph still in:

The bolded paragraph, particularly, was removed. Completely. I know because a copy was originally emailed to me. Note: Reuters did not disclose that this was an updated version of the release, nor did they change the timestamp on it from Thu Feb 12, 2009 8:22am EST.

It’s a big problem for web-based journalism. With print – once you set the presses rolling, there’s nothing much you can do to revise copy short of pulping the whole run and starting again. Going to press means just that. But with online, well – you needn’t ever actually finally go to press at all. You can edit something way beyond the time of publication if there’s some legal problem with it, or factual inaccuracy. Or if you simply don’t like something you’ve written. 

I confess I have done this in this blog – after all, when you’ve worked as a print sub for years and you see a typo in copy, there’s an almost irresistable urge to go in and fix it if you can and have the time. But it’s a dangerous business. Strictly speaking, once the publish button is pressed, the content should be treated as sacrosanct. Any alteration, for whatever reason, should be flagged up with a strikethrough and an explanation. 

Some bloggers [I can’t remember where I read this unfortunately, but it was probably in the Whatever or Coyote, since they’re the ones I tend to read most] have a policy that they can change posts up to the point where a comment is made, after which it is officially “published”, since there’s a definite reader involved. Possibly a bit like the eBay policy that you can make changes to a listing up to the first bid.

It’s an interesting problem – when does online material become fixed? Does it ever? Should it have the same status as print material? 

Yes, we can noodle with our content for ever if we want to to get it just right. But we run the risk of making the truth much more fluid. [What did that company say about its privacy policy last week? I could have sworn I had more protection…]

For some things, like high-profile actions by governments, there will probably be enough scrutiny in the media to keep track of it. But for smaller things – local government, corporate governance, web-based comment like this – there might not be. 

Perhaps in the future factual accuracy will become even more subjective, depending on how many observers agree on the history of a piece of information. Maybe we’ll see online information rating, stamping information with an accuracy grade of AAA for 95% certainty – or BBB for ‘junk’ stories with less than 60% credibility…

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