By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Corrections and blogging standards

The New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan, blogging at The Medium on, recently wrote that neo-Nazis were portraying Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul as one of them. She didn’t check with Paul. Hence the lengthy “Editor’s Note” that now precedes the item.

As it turns out, this is interesting fodder for a consideration of blogging ethics. If Heffernan had contacted neo-Nazi groups, gotten their version of events, and then failed to do the same with Paul, well, that would be an obvious journalistic lapse. But that’s not what she did. Instead, in classic blogger style, she pointed to accounts elsewhere, particularly in Little Green Footballs, which, as she notes, has a reputation for being “rigidly empiricist.”

Which means that I’m not sure how I come down on this. I don’t think any blogger believes you should have to verify independently everything you link to as long as you’re linking to a reasonably reputable source. On the other hand, there’s no question that the New York Times can do a lot more damage to someone’s reputation than Little Green Footballs. So perhaps the standard does need to be different.

There’s also the matter of how blogs root out stories. This became a subject for discussion at a New England News Forum conference at Southern New Hampshire University recently, as we pondered Talking Points Memo’s efforts to determine whether or not Mitt Romney had ever said he would never appoint a Muslim to his Cabinet. (As we now know from the Martin Luther King Jr. story, you would first have to figure out how Romney defines “never,” “appoint,” “Muslim” and “Cabinet.”)

TPM has been doing it open-source-style, putting half-vetted stuff out incrementally and letting the story emerge over time in a very public way. It’s a fascinating methodology, and one quite different from the closed-system model used in traditional journalism. But it can be pretty devastating to someone’s reputation if it turns out to be untrue — a position taken at the conference by, among others, David Tirrell-Wysocki, an Associated Press executive who’s also the executive director of the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester, N.H. From the “running notes”:

“I’m held accountable,” said Tirrell-Wysocki. “But who is holding the blogger accountable? That’s the downside as I see it.” He said blogs are akin to the conversation at the doughnut shop: “It’s what people are talking about.”

Essentially that is what LGF is doing, preceding its post on Paul by saying, “Take this one with a grain of salt, please,” but then laying out the accusation. Heffernan’s post is equally skeptical, as she concludes that “maybe it was only a matter of time before Paul got roasted on his own spit, i.e., the Internet.” Now Heffernan is getting roasted on the Internet, too.

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  1. Larz

    A classic example of the glaring difference between traditional journalism and the web & blogs. The biggest danger here is the public’s lack of perception of the difference in sources. We have yet to see a good libel case come out of this, and I’m sure that Ron Paul, being a public figure, won’t be the case that comes up. Someone’s going to get nailed, though.

  2. Howard Owens

    MSM types have a hard time accepting that the blogosphere is a self-correcting ecosystem.I think this post helps prove that.In the monopolistic era of packaged goods media, the one-newspaper town (or limited media outlets in one town), each outlet had a crushing responsibility to do its best to be 100 percent accurate. A gargantuan task that led to many journalistic failures. But there was a huge responsibility to readers to make the effort, because they might not get their news from any other source than you.Now, who knows if enough news consumers are using multiple sources, but the option is certainly there like never before, and there is no doubt that the serious news junkies are using MSM and blogs — Just the kind of people to even be aware of the Ron Paul/Neo-Nazi dust up.Do you really think the people who have any interest in this story are really relying on solely the NYT?This is where the self-correcting ecosystem really works — when contributors and readers go to multiple sources and decide for themselves (with out some priestly editor’s intervention) what is true and what is not.I would argue that this is both health for journalism and for democracy.As I said, because of their monopolistic background, MSM types have a hard time with it.But like it or not, they will just have to accept it. It ain’t changing. The tools and processes are now firmly embedded, if not baked into digital networks. Democracy and journalism would be better served if journalists learned how to work within the system rather than fight it.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Howard: That’s the upside of what’s taking place now. The downside is that it’s a hell of a thing if you’re the target of nasty rumors that are in the process of being publicly debunked by bloggers working within a “self-correcting ecosystem.”

  4. jeff

    I fault the NY Times for this. It just hasn’t figured out how to deal with a new room in an old house.

  5. Jon Garfunkel

    “mega-dittos, Dan!” (in-joke.)In other words, blogs don’t kill; it’s those nefarious “MSM-types” holding the trigger!You cannot escape the laws of gravity: lowering (er, “evolving”) editorial standards brings great risk along with the reward. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t have an established media outlet (the Times) embrace a lower-threshold medium, and not get burnt by jumping the gun. (That’s not to say that the Times hasn’t shot itself in the foot with its old-school journalism. It’s just that simply blogging doesn’t solve the problem.)To the journosaur seeking revenge on all the editors who spiked his stories, blogging is the solution. But new media is an environment that likes change, and it will mutate before long.

  6. Larz

    I’d like to hear the outcome of a libel case where the defendant plead for mitigation, as the “self-correcting eco-system” had come through and saved the reputation of the plaintiff.Call me MSM, call me Perry White, anyone putting up info that purports to be factual has a legal obligation to not publish derogatory material. No, the cops won’t come and take you away, but the lawyers might come and take away all that you own.Many blogs right now are like free love was 30 years ago, after the invention of birth control and before the discovery of AIDS. Anything goes, and there’s no price to pay. Yeah, right.

  7. Marc

    I think for this particular instance of Ron Paul bashing, a conversation about blogs versus traditional news consumption should be off the table. This isn’t just some blogger in her pajamas. This is someone getting paid by the New York Times. The big bad MSM has been treating Paul like trash — or just avoiding coverage of him, except when he sets money raising records — when he has won many straw polls and, right after debating, Fox News polls and CNN polls.

  8. Anonymous

    Um, why didn’t the Times take the erroneous post down…

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