Thursday, July 21, 2011

Precision . . . Corrections . . . and Apologies

As someone who deals with words, I was struck by this article from The Atlantic.
Osama bin Laden was dead, and Frank Lindh -- father of John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" -- had been invited on [San Francisco's KQED Forum show] to discuss a New York Times op-ed piece he'd just published about his son's 20-year prison sentence. The moment host Dave Iverson completed his introduction about the politically and emotionally charged case, Lindh cut in: "Can I add a really important correction to what you just said?"

Iverson had just described John Walker Lindh's 2002 guilty plea as "one count of providing services to a terrorist organization." That, Frank Lindh said, was simply wrong.

Yes, his son had pled guilty to providing services to the Taliban, in whose army he had enlisted. Doing so was a crime because the Taliban government was under U.S. economic sanctions for harboring Al Qaeda. But the Taliban was not (and has never been) classified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization itself.

This distinction might seem picayune. But it cut to the heart of the disagreement between Americans who have viewed John Walker Lindh as a traitor and a terrorist and those, like his father, who believe he was a fervent Muslim who never intended to take up arms against his own country.

That morning, the clash over this one fact set host and guest on a collision course for the remainder of the 30-minute interview. . . . The collision was set in motion nine years before by 14 erroneous words in the New York Times.
The 14 erroneous words? "Mr. Lindh agreed to plead guilty to one of the 10 counts in the indictment against him. It charged he had provided service to the Taliban, which is a felony because President Bush and former President Bill Clinton had declared the party a terrorist organization."

Reality: Neither president, Bush or Clinton, ever formally declared the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. Okay. But in most Americans' minds, does it really matter whether the Taliban was formally declared to be a terrorist organization? After all, the Taliban gave Al Qaeda a haven and Al Qaeda attacked the United States. So aren't we merely splitting hairs to try to distinguish whether the Taliban was a terrorist organization?

Absolutely not! says Frank Lindh.
"It is no small thing to accuse a person of being a terrorist, or of providing assistance to or conspiring with a terrorist organization. . . . It's basically calling the person a murderer." His son, John, maintained that his purpose in joining the Taliban army had been to defend Muslim civilians from attacks by the insurgents who would later come to be known as the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance.

The record of the Lindh legal proceeding shows that federal prosecutors wanted very badly to hang the "terrorist" label on Lindh, but they [didn't]: either they didn't have the evidence, or they had some other reason to drop all of the terrorism-related charges. As New York Times Justice Department correspondent David Johnston reported in a front page companion piece to [the] story [that contained the error], U.S. officials "had grown skeptical that Mr. Lindh played any meaningful role in Islamic terrorism." They allowed Lindh to limit his guilty plea to two violations of the Taliban economic sanctions.

Lindh's statement to the court carefully maintained this distinction. He said: "I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to December. In the course of doing so, I carried a rifle and two grenades. I did so knowingly and willingly knowing that it was illegal."

The [Times'] mistaken description of the Taliban as a federally sanctioned terrorist organization was therefore far from a minor detail. For Lindh and his sympathizers, it was the crux of the story.
Besides the fine legal distinction, I am intrigued by The Atlantic article's discussion about making corrections in news stories online.
After the KQED show hoisted the mistake into the spotlight, MediaBugs, an online service for recording and fixing problems in news coverage, filed an error report and contacted the Times about the matter. And within a week, the Times had corrected the error--in a way.

If you look up that July 16, 2002, story today, you find the words "correction appended" inserted, a little awkwardly, between the byline and the first paragraph. And if you press "next page" three more times to get to the conclusion of the story and scroll all the way down, you'll find the following notice:
"Correction: This article gives an imprecise explanation for why providing assistance to the Taliban was a felony. Executive orders by Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush forbade such assistance because the Taliban was considered a threat to the United States and had provided haven to Al Qaeda, but those orders did not declare the Taliban to be a terrorist organization. (The error was brought to The Times's attention after related news reports in June 2011.)"
One might quibble with this wording's halfhearted walk-back: After all, the article's explanation wasn't "imprecise" -- it was wrong. But correction notices have a long history of defensive phrasing; minimizing your missteps is human nature. The main thing is that the Times noted, and corrected, its goof.
Or is it?

I noted a similar problem with a young-earth creationist site that modified and, from my perspective, wildly misrepresented something Charles Spurgeon once said in a sermon. (See Honesty . . . it's such a lonely word . . . and Editorial license.)

As I complained there, so the author of the Atlantic article complains in his article: the Times' correction is way too difficult to find. Indeed, it almost begs to be ignored:
[T]he paper did not edit the story's original text to reflect the correction. The same erroneous 14 words still sit, live, on the Times' website. To learn that they've been superseded, you have to click through three more pages. (Or, if you're really unlucky, Google might send you to a different version of the same story that shows no trace at all of any correction.)

Philip Corbett, the Times' associate managing editor for standards, explained in an email, "For practical and technical reasons in this case, we decided simply to append the correction, rather than trying to rewrite a passage in a nine-year-old article." (Editor's note: The Atlantic approaches corrections on a case-by-case basis. However, in a similar situation, we would probably leave the original wording intact but provide a linked asterisk at that spot in the text, which would take you to the full correction at the end of the piece.)

Is that enough? Corrections expert Craig Silverman, author of the book and blog "Regret the Error" and Columbia Journalism Review columnist (he is also an adviser to MediaBugs), doesn't think so.

"If you only read the first two pages of that story," Silverman says, "you're not going to get to the correction, and you're going to get the mistaken piece of information, and so it's just not effective. That's a very long article. What percent of people are going to read to the end of that and get to the correction, or even know that 'correction appended' means that it's necessarily on the exact last page? The basic principle of 'Let's make sure that this error stops spreading' is not really being upheld here."

Institutions like the Times honed their correction practices in the age of print, when appending a notice was the best feasible option. But an always-available digital page is also always editable -- and is part of a rapidly evolving news ecosystem in which stopping the spread of misinformation is more important [than] ever. Post-publication edits can uphold that principle without being furtive or seeming to rewrite history. Any changes to long-published articles can be made transparently, either in the text of an accompanying correction notice or in an archive of previous story versions.
So how should newspaper editors take care of errors in news stories? (According to a study referenced by the Atlantic author, "59 percent of local news and feature stories were found by news sources to have at least one error.")

"For starters," writes Atlantic author,
[editors] can demonstrate that they invite and welcome pointers to potential errors from readers. Today's stance -- "we're willing to consider fixing our mistakes if you hunt down our contact information and pester us" -- is too passive. But it can be upgraded to an active pursuit of truth via some simple interface changes on a news website. Put a button on every page of every story, current and archived, that says "Report an error" -- and then follow up on what the public tells you. Think of this as a customer service feedback loop, or a quality-control system. That's how the most efficient large businesses that produce software or cars run their operations today; surely the information we use to run our society deserves at least as much care.
There's more at and on the KQED webpage dedicated to the Frank Lindh interview. (I encourage you, especially, to read the Listener Comments.)
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