To help drive traffic (and thus ad revenue), a lot of websites tease their stories on the front page either by cutting off the story just before the salient part or by writing an ambiguous headline. Here’s a perfect example from the Star’s website this morning, teasing the results of last night’s Over the Rainbow on CBC:
Who could have won? I must click through.
See? In an actual newspaper that was more concerned with telling you the news than selling your eyeballs to advertisers, that headline would be sporting a name in place of the ellipsis. (Indeed, the story’s URL gives it away, but many people wouldn’t notice.) Instead, you have to click through just to see the headline, right? Except that someone forgot to tell the Star’s advertisers how this whole teaser thing works:
Never mind, I got it.
If anyone at the Star noticed the incongruity of a teaser headline with a spoiler right underneath it, they just doubled down on the ad instead of losing the coy headline:
I said I got it.
Someone really needs to tell a Star editor that there’s no point in teasing the headline if it’s surrounded by the story. Okay, a semi-silly teasing headline on a website, no big deal. That would have been that, except that the Star did the same thing in today’s dead tree edition, placing the spoiler not just on the same page as the teaser, but in a wraparound that covered the teaser up:
Want to find out who won? Please buy this paper and turn to page E1. Try not to look to the left.
Back in January, I wrote about a story appearing on the Star‘s website that was silently updated after it was originally posted so that the new article said exactly the opposite of the original article. The Star‘s public editor responded to my complaint in her column, stating that allowing such silent story changes is “not the view of reputable news organizations that understand the vital importance of credibility.”
I’ve since noticed a number of similar silent changes on the Star‘s website, but none as egregious as yesterday afternoon’s story about Jason Kenney apologizing (or not) for calling a provincial minister an “asshole” in an email. Here was the headline as posted in the afternoon:
The original story said that Kenney had no intention of apologizing and included a quote from a Kenney spokesperson who dismissed the insult, saying that it wasn’t important to comment on every email that Kenney sends (presumably because apologizing to everyone Kenney calls an asshole would be a full-time job).
Shortly afterward, the story and headline were both updated while still posted under the original link:
The new story indicated that Kenney had indeed apologized and the dismissive quote from the spokesperson was nowhere to be seen. This isn’t a mere revision, it’s revisionism.
So here’s my problem: if a story changes after you post it to your website, you should either clearly state in the article that the story has progressed from what was earlier published, or (better) post a separate article with a note in the first article pointing to the new one. Sure, go ahead and fix minor spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in-line. But simply updating a story to this extent without acknowledging it is, well, not the sign of a “reputable news organization.” Another complaint to the public editor is on the way.
Kathy English, the Star‘s public editor, dedicated her column today to addressing my complaint about headline switching on its website.
In her column, English reported that the journalist who wrote the story had misunderstood the council vote and only realized her error after the story went live on the Star‘s website. The reporter and her editor updated the online story and headline without noting the significant change in the article. I’m not sure if that’s any better than my original thought on seeing the flip-flop, which was that the Star had prepared two headlines and accompanying stories in advance and had simply posted the wrong one. Neither option is an excuse for not posting a correction on something like this.
Clarifying that the Star‘s corrections policy does apply to the web site, English wrote:
The Star’s accuracy and corrections policy applies to all content on all platforms. It says that errors, in print or online, must be corrected clearly, promptly and prominently. It also states, “Building trust in the digital world demands that the Star is seen to be transparent.”
In recent months, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the Star’s level of transparency about online errors, having come across far too many examples of the newsroom “fixing” stories without acknowledging mistakes.
I’m quite surprised to discover that the Star‘s corrections policy holds the website to the same standard as the print edition, and can only assume that its requirements are disregarded by a significant proportion of Star writers and editors. I’ve lost count of how many silent corrections I’ve seen on the Star‘s website. I may laugh at spelling mistakes and nonsensical sentence fragments, but getting a story plain wrong and then not owning up to it is just too much.
Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that online media should be held to the same standard as any other media when it comes to accuracy. When an error is made, a correction should be noted and published. Both online-only publications like Slate and traditional broadsheets like the New York Times adhere to this standard for web content. Locally, Torontoist started doing it in January 2008 under then Editor-in-Chief David Topping and remains one of few, if not the only Toronto media outlet that reliably appends public corrections to articles that originally contained errors ranging from misspelled names or misstated dates all the way up to mistaken facts. It’s kind of sad that four years on, major media in this town is still catching up.
[January 28 update: the Star's public editor addressed my complaint in her column today. Here's my reaction.]
[January 26 update: the Star finally prepended a correction to the article yesterday, more than a full day later. I'll have more to say about it in a couple of days.]
Although the Star is somewhat notorious for its editing mistakes, it’s not often that you see the same story covered under two completely contradictory headlines. But such was the case today when a story about a raise for town councillors in Whitchurch-Stouffville first appeared and was later updated:
Half an hour later:
I didn’t have a chance to read the first version of the story, but it’s clear that at least a couple of the early commenters on the article saw a story about a 43% raise. Based on the headline alone, a correction should be appended to the online article. No such luck. It’s worth noting that the URL for the story also changed, from:
Both URLs currently take you to the same version of the story, but that’s only because to the Star‘s chosen content management system, this is also a valid link to the story:
A lot of minor corrections are fixed silently and go unnoticed, but an error on this scale requires some sort of acknowledgement.
I’ve written an email to the Star‘s public editor, Kathy English, in the hope that this kind of situation may be addressed in the future.
It’s not every day that you read a story about Tim Berners-Lee that doesn’t mention his primary claim to fame, that he invented the World Wide Web. It’s even less frequent that you see him referred to as a “climate-change expert” without mentioning his long history in computing. That would be because the author of How Bad are Bananas?, the book featured in this story in today’s Star, is not Tim Berners-Lee as identified in the third paragraph, but is in fact Mike Berners-Lee. The Star has already issued a correction and fixed the online version of the story, but I predict ongoing confusion for poor Mike: Amazon.ca currently catalogues the book under Lee M. Berners.
Also listed in the Star‘s correction today is a story about thorium, which originally stated that it has two fewer atoms than uranium. Let’s see, if uranium has one atom and thorium has two fewer, would that make thorium, with its -1 atom, antimatter? No wonder people are so excited about it.