Why Journalists Should Delete Tweets When Article Titles Are Corrected

Why Journalists Should Delete Tweets When Article Titles Are Corrected

Has this ever happened to you? Someone writes an article with a salacious headline, you click and read the article only to discover that it’s really NOT what you thought it would be, that the headline isn’t quite accurate? Or how about, you see a headline on Twitter and you retweet it, without even reading the article at all just because you think the article if it matches that headline will be something your followers (all 20 of them!) will be interested in?

We’re increasingly living in a world that operates by reference. I retweet a news article that was based on another article quoting “unnamed sources” who refer to someone else’s summary that quotes a blog post, which mentions wikipedia that in turn references a paper summarized on someone’s website. When major bloggers post something, bots immediately repost/quote and aggregate their words. Nothing is lost, and making a correction to something that was misquoted is far more complicated than ever – forget about posting a “correction notice” on page 3 of the newspaper – what happens if my tweet was retweeted 40 times and then others wrote articles based on it? Do I update the blog post with an “UPDATE” or “CORRECTION” notice? Do I delete the tweet, and create a new one? Wow. All this is making my head hurt!

I wasn’t quite sure what Twitter’s policy was if I were to delete a tweet – do all the retweets get deleted? The answer, (see article: The Case of the Disappearing Retweets) is that they get deleted by Twitter which appears to be the correct behavior if you use the builtin retweet function. This doesn’t address all the people who themselves tweeted it when it was published in its original form, and you can also of course quote a tweet using the old RT notation, or take a screenshot or what have you… but importantly this brings us to some policy considerations.

It’s important to note that our Reference Economy is one where paper-based journalism has been rapidly and overwhelmingly replaced by electronic journalism. Established news magazines and newspapers have been shutting down their hard-copy versions in favor of electronic distribution. This means instant publishing, and instant error correction too — and no actual physical paper-trail (just a virtual one)! Many “bloggers” have taken the approach that they should be treated just as journalists always have in terms of accountability, protection of sources, disclosure of conflicts of interest etc. Others have actively tried to distance themselves from accepted journalistic standards to greater or lesser degrees, for example claiming that the rapid-fire information consumption needs of consumers in the new news marketplace mean that they need to sometimes rush to get the story out when not all claims are substantiated, all sources confirmed or reference checked. Be that as it may for any particular publication, it’s hard to argue that we don’t have a far greater volume of information, some of dubious provenance these days, and that cut and paste journalism and the tendency to meta-reference almost anything is something for us to be aware of as consumers of information.

My point, long-winded as it is, is that all publications that take themselves seriously should have very specific standards around how they treat social media references that they themselves make to their written work. A tweet or Facebook post that summarizes or references your article(s) should itself be subject to at least the same degree of care and journalistic standards as the article(s) themselves. I personally believe that means that if the article changes such that that summary/reference by itself (by itself, assuming the user does NOT read the underlying article if it contradicts that summary) is misleading, that reference should be changed by whatever means reaches the highest number of people originally consuming it or affected by it – and to be specific (I believe) for a tweet I believe that means deleting the original tweet (and thus having those retweets deleted by Twitter) and reissuing the tweet with a CORRECTION or UPDATE appellation attached. Both of these things. Not just the latter.

I decided to write this about a specific article in Business Insider that I saw a few days ago. I tweeted back to Henry Blodget asking him “if your article has a correction in it that then contradicts the title- shouldn’t you update the title?”, and he replied here “If it renders the title incorrect, absolutely.” For the specific article I was referring to, there were a couple of stages after the initial posting and tweeting of the title – 1) A correction was made to the body of the article, adding language that then contradicted the headline, and 2) At some point later, the headline of the article was changed so that it was no longer contradictory to the correction language that had been added. What wasn’t addressed however was the original tweet from the publication, that was retweeted over 140 times and favorited over 30 times. The journalist who wrote the piece also separately tweeted it.

I’m curious on what Business Insider’s policy is about this type of case — and then I’d be very interested (but don’t have the time to research) other major online-only publications’ stance? Thoughts?

[By the way, I changed the title of this article from Navigating the Reference Economy and the New Journalism to Why Journalists Should Delete Tweets When Article Titles Are Corrected]. And of course, I’m not going to change the permalink!