Our Horrible Media: Corrections and Celebrity Outrage Clickbait

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on June 3, 2021

Corrections policies, especially at newspapers, used to be pretty straightforward. In most cases, they'd run in the same, dedicated spot in the section of the newspaper in which the story they were correcting first appeared. So, corrections on AP wire stories often ran on A2. If it was a correction to a feature piece in the Arts section, it would run there. On rare occasions, when the error was in a prominent story and was sufficiently serious, the correction might appear on the front page.

At small newspapers, that was typically the end of it. You would hope that there was a longtime employee who would remember these sorts of things and could pass on that knowledge, when appropriate, to new reporters. At larger newspapers, librarians would attach corrections to stories either physically and/or digitally so that when the original article was referenced for whatever reason years later, the same mistake wouldn't be made twice.

The digital era has changed all of this, for good and bad.

The good: Corrections can be attached directly to digital articles.

The bad: Changes can be made to digital articles without notice, effectively memory-holing what was commonly referred to as the first draft of history.

Our Horrible Media: Washington Post Correction

On Monday, I posted a rundown of the mainstream media's reporting on the possibility that COVID-19 had leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, rather than jumping from some animal to humans at a wet market in the city.

Among the pieces I linked to was this one from slamming Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for suggesting that the lab leak possibility be investigated. I took the screenshot below last Friday, May 28.

Washington Post tom Cotton

Sometime between Friday and yesterday, more than a year after the article was first published, the headline was changed. Today it reads:

Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed

Below, a correction has been added:

Earlier versions of this story and its headline inaccurately characterized comments by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) regarding the origins of the coronavirus. The term “debunked” and The Post’s use of “conspiracy theory” have been removed because, then as now, there was no determination about the origins of the virus.

Interestingly, a comparison of the story as it currently appears on the Post's website and an earlier, archived version shows no change to the text of the article itself; only the headline was changed.

This prompts a few criticisms.

First, if the text of the story itself required no changes, then the headline should've been a problem from the outset. One of a copy editor's primary responsibilities is to ensure that the headlines they write accurately reflect the content of the story. The fact that that didn't happen here is just another example of partisanship overwhelming professionalism when it came to anything having to do with Republicans during the Trump administration.

Second, for those without a subscription to the Post, the correction is hidden by a popup inviting them to subscribe to the paper. This is an issue encountered by many newspapers with subscription paywalls. However, it might behoove publications that make stories like this that trend on social media to remove the paywall on the article for a week while it is a hot topic for discussion.

Third, while the correction notes the words they removed from the headline, it does not give you the original, unchanged headline. This means that you can't see the original on the Post's own website. For that, you've got to go to the Internet Archive version.

Fourth, and this is really the most serious issue with the Post's correction: There is no date- or time-stamp on the correction itself. If you're reading this post or have been following the issue on Twitter or conservative media sites, the change is news and you know that it was done only in the past few days. But imagine one year from now. Imagine two decades from now and young researcher or a college student doing a paper on the 2020 pandemic and its origins and comes across this Post article. You see the new headline. You see the correction. Would you guess that the correction came more than a year after the article first appeared? Since approximately 99.44% of corrections to news articles take place within a week or two of the story's original publication date, why would you ever guess that the correction took a year?

This sort of correction occupies that somewhat odd desert between the typical correction (one to two weeks or less) and the amusing, embarrassing correction like when The New York Times retracted an nearly 50 year old article claiming that spaceflight was impossible the day after Apollo 11 launched carrying the first men to set foot on the moon. Corrections like this should include the date on which the correction was applied.

Our Horrible Media: This is standard operating procedure

When I made the comment on Twitter that the correction should carry a timestamp (which currently has 633 "likes"—my all-time record), I got a response to the effect that making this change to the headline—while completely deleting the original headline—was the standard way every media company deals with corrections for digital stories. This is an accurate statement of the way most, reputable media organizations handle online corrections.

That doesn't mean it's the best way.

For a developing story with multiple re-writes over a number of hours as part of a breaking news, corrections, changes, and additions are the norm. In those situations you're basically getting a glimpse of what it was like to read copy fresh off the AP wire in real time 20+ years ago.

However, once you've got a "final" version—when you've reached a point where you'd print or broadcast that story as a complete report—any corrections need to be as transparent and open as possible. At this point, it should no longer be acceptable to make so-called "stealth edits" or any substantive change to the story. If there's a new version of the story, and it needs to take the old one's digital place (i.e. URL) for SEO or whatever other reasons, then the old story should be moved to a new URL and the new story should note that at the top and have a link to the superseded story.

What you certainly shouldn't do is what Politifact did last month when it walked back one of its lab leak-related fact checks of Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Politifact chose to "archive" the fact check rating the claims of a Carlson guest that the virus was effectively created in a lab as "Pants on Fire." Direct links to the fact check still work, but if you type in Tucker Carlson's name in the search box on Politifact's on website, the "archived" fact check doesn't show up in the list. You have to use an outside search engine to find the article.

That's not open and transparent; it's doing the absolute minimum required to cover your butt.

Celebrity Outrage Clickbait: Fixer Upper Edition

Chip and Joanna Gaines are widely beloved television personalities who made their names turning dumps in the greater Waco, Texas, area into beautiful homes as chronicled on the HGTV show "Fixer Upper." They're also Christians, which is apparently enough reason for a certain class of woke individuals to hate them and target them for destruction.

Last week, The Hill promoted a "story" on Twitter that wasn't newsworthy in any fashion and was written in such a way as to elicit hatred among one of America's major tribes.

While great clickbait, the Tweet is simply inaccurate. This isn't The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast or any of the new media outlets. This is The Hill. Once you click through to the story itself, the subhead tells you why this is a non-story.

Our Horrible Media Fixer Upper Chip & Joanna Gaines

Chip donated $1,000 for his sister's run for a local school board. How does this translate into a "campaign against critical race theory"? Gaines' sister, Shannon Braun, is opposed to Critical Race Theory being taught in schools. That's it.

The story notes that Braun is also for giving "our kids the education they deserve." So, The Hill could also have written that TV Stars Chip and Joanna Gaines donate to campaign for high-quality educational opportunities.

This is a dishonest and outrageous way to characterize a donation to a sibling's campaign for public office.

Two days later, NBC News follows The Hill's lead.

This story is barely newsworthy, and you can be certain that if the politics of those involved were different, then rather than outrage story this would be treated as interesting human interest story.

Celebrity Outrage Clickbait: Ellie Kemper Edition

Over the weekend, an article by satirical newspaper The Onion's A.V. Club entertainment site wrote an article about actress Ellie Kemper, known for her roles in the U.S. version of "The Office" and Netflix's "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" after some Twitter rando posted a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo from 1999 calling her a "KKK queen."

Oh great, Ellie Kemper is yet another rich white celebrity with a racist past https://t.co/6wah2zIcte pic.twitter.com/dxYfYWFibj

There's all sorts of problems with this hatchet job by Tatiana Tenreyo. Perhaps the worst is that Tweet above which is what the original headline on the article read. By the next day, the headline was changed and a correction below reads:

UPDATE [6/2/2021]: The headline of this piece has been changed to reflect that the Veiled Prophet Ball, and not Ellie Kemper herself, has ties to racism and white supremacy.

But the original Tweet accusing Kemper of being a racist is still up.

Tenreyo also relies heavily on an article in The Atlantic by Scott Beauchamp (it is unclear why he still has a career in journalism), but takes his comparatively nuanced reporting on the event and recasts it in a hyper-racialized fashion.

For a responsibly reported account of the controversy, I would recommend this article by Michael Ordoña at The Los Angeles Times.

To make a long story short, in 1999, when Kemper was 19 years old, she was named Queen of Love and Beauty at the Fair Saint Louis. The event has gone on for more than 100 years under one name or another and is basically a debutante ball for the wealthy of St. Louis.

However, one of the founders of the event, in 1877, was a former colonel in the Confederacy. A history professor who wrote a book on the group that sponsored the event for more than 100 years, Thomas Spencer, addressed the controversy this way:

"I cannot figure out for the life of me what the point is of going after some actress for something she did 20 years ago when she was 19," he said. "I'm not going to defend the organization; it has a lot of problems. It just baffles me to think that you should make a big deal about someone being in a debutante ball."

Other inconvenient facts: The group was racially integrated in 1979, one year before Kemper was born—20 years before she participated; and, according to Spencer, despite some of the initial symbiology between the Veiled Prophet and the KKK being similar, he "never found any close connections between the two organizations."

Knowing all that, Tenreyo's "reporting" is likely sufficient for a libel judgment should Kemper decide to file suit (and she should). The "racist pageant" as Tenreyo  characterizes it, had been integrated for 20 years when Kemper participated, yet Tenreyo tars her with guilt-by-association nonetheless.

If Fair Saint Louis was, in Tenreyo's words "racist as fuck" when Kemper was crowned queen, then it must be racist today, right? Once racist, always racist.

What does Tenreyo have to say about all of these businesses and media organizations that are part of Fair Saint Louis today? How about the performers? A glance down the National Park Service's page on the then "VP Fair" reads like a who's who of popular culture more than a decade before Kemper was participated in the debutante's ball. Bob Hope, Chuck Berry, Dionne Warwick, The Beach Boys, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, Harry Belafonte, The Charlie Daniels Band, John Denver, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles all apparently "racist as fuck."

This sort of thing is journalism near its absolute worst. Tenreyo and A.V. Club should be ashamed of themselves. Twenty or 30 years ago, the Columbia Journalism Review at Tenreyo's alma mater would have had a field day with this "reporting." Today, this is the garbage it is teaching.

I encourage readers to contrast the zeal with which The A.V. Club and Tenreyo went after Kemper with this piece on Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka's decision to pull out of the French Open rather than speak with the press. One is a thoughtful analysis of press freedoms, mental health and elite athletes, the other is Two Minutes Hate.

Our Horrible Media: It will never end

I'd like to write that this is just a phase the media is going through and the adults will soon step in and reimpose some semblance of sanity, levelheadedness and a desire for basic fairness.

Unfortunately, that's not going to happen. The adults are cowed by their young, woke newsrooms. As much of the press has drastically downsized over the past decade, a lot of the mid-career "middle" of the newsroom, that part that would've been a moderating influence, was gutted. When budget cuts necessitated layoffs, management saved their own jobs, and the recent college grads with two or three years of experience were cheap enough to keep.

This is the insanity we now live in. Get used to it.

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