Online News group’s ethics code draft addresses ‘fixing’ quotes, altering archives

New York City – The Online News Association ethics code, still a work in progress, offers several practical accuracy-related guidelines for B2B editors, as covered in a previous Ethics News Updates post. But the 2,200-plus-member group also is developing cogent approaches to the sticky issue of handling quoted matter in stories, and about altering archives when a change in published information is requested.

The section on how staffers should deal with quotations, written by ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward, identifies two “danger zones” that require special review by digital journalists:

“(1) ‘Fixing’ quotes: People being quoted will make mistakes in grammar, garble their words, sometimes speak barely recognizably, or say “ah” after every phrase. Should journalists ‘fix’ such quotes to eliminate ‘imperfections’? Broadcasters routinely edit video and audio quotations. But when does ‘fixing’ and ‘editing’ amount to changing what a person meant, or actually said, and how she said it?

“(2) Using partial quotes: Some people speak in a long-winded manner. Or they place unimportant comments between important comments. Should journalists cope with these facts by using parts of what was said, so as to focus on the newsworthy comments? One way to create a partial quote is to use an ellipsis to connect two parts of a long sentence, e.g., ‘I will go to war . . . but only if necessary.’ But partial quotes are notoriously subject to the accusation of being incomplete or taking someone’s remarks ‘out of context.’ Consider, in the above example, if I only reported the president of the United States as saying: ‘I will go to war’.”

Ward proposes a series of building blocks for dealing with quoted matter:

  • Adopt a conservative approach: Ideally, journalists should prefer ‘non-partial’ and ‘unfixed’ quotes. Therefore, resist changes unless necessary. If some change is thought necessary, seek to make a minimum of changes. This strategy prevents reporters from getting in the habit of playing looser and looser with quotes.
  • Accountability for changes: Be ready to provide a reason for any changes.
  • Pick another quote: If a quote needs a lot of editing, consider using another quote.”

How to handle ‘unpublish’ requests

The need for a policy covering requests to unpublish was a concern that ASBPE addressed at last

year’s Ethics Town Hall, held during its national conference in Chicago. In the ONA ethics code draft, ethicist Steve Buttry dealt with such requests by posing four questions in the section titled “Removing Material from Your Archives.”

  1. How does removing material from your archives square with transparency about what you have reported?
  2. Should accurate material ever be deleted?
  3. What about deleting material from social networks?
  4. What alternatives exist for deleting material from social networks on your own archives?

Here, Buttry says, are possible responses that news organizations can give when alterations in digital archives are requested, (for example, such as when someone wants an arrest report purged from an archived article.). “If you decide that your approach is always yes,” he explains, “or a flat no, you’ll never remove published content, those positions are pretty clear and simple. You might want to consider a middle ground, though: Seldom removing archived content but updating when you have documentation on the resolution of a case.”

When social media is involved, Buttry recommends using subsequent posts to acknowledge prior errors, and then editing the material to correct any errors. Tweets, he points out, cannot be edited once posted. “Generally,” he says, “it’s better to acknowledge an error in a subsequent tweet rather than to delete tweets. But because a tweet is most often seen by itself in users’ timelines, rather than in sequence with the correcting tweet, you should consider whether some situations might justify deleting a tweet.”

Those situations include “egregious errors, potentially libelous tweets, someone hacking your account and sending bogus tweets, employee mischief results in offensive tweets and retweeting inaccurate information.”

In deleting a tweet, Buttry adds, “an ethic of transparency would be to say you deleted it and offer an explanation, especially if you are correcting a factual error. One exception: It’s best not to identify a tweet as potentially libelous. ‘Inappropriate’ might be a better explanation.”

Because Facebook posts can be edited, Buttry advises, “If you do more than fixing simple typos you should add a note telling how you’ve updated, corrected or altered. We prefer editing to deleting. If an extreme situation prompts you to delete (such as those outlined in the Twitter section) acknowledge the deletion in a separate post.”

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