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Conflicting accounts

Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 10:38 UK time, Thursday, 14 June 2007

The announcement by Jamaican police that Bob Woolmer wasn't murdered as they originally said, but died of natural causes, raised a question for our online coverage.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteAs pointed out by Torin Douglas here, there are lots of stories left in the website archive that report the earlier version of events - so anyone who types in a search will find the conflicting accounts.

Is this a problem? I'd say anyone using an online search to get information should, and in most cases would, in any case be looking at where and when the information originated, and judging it accordingly. The datestamp on any story is a crucial bit of information.

In this case the stories all have a datestamp and they give the fullest account, based on what the police were saying, that was available at the time they were written. Going back to change them would confuse, not clarify the sequence of events - when did the police view changes, what was known when?

To try and steer readers through the potential confusion, we ran a timeline relating how the story changed over time, with links to the key developments. This, along with the latest news story, appears alongside all the archived stories, as well as the current ones.

So we're not rewriting the archive, but there are hopefully enough signposts in there for anyone searching online to work out what happened when.

Comments

  • 1.
  • At 10:59 AM on 14 Jun 2007,
  • Johnny wrote:

"The datestamp on any story is a crucial bit of information."

So why, then, do your video stories not have them?

  • 2.
  • At 12:05 PM on 14 Jun 2007,
  • Neil wrote:

More importantly, what about stories that get withdrawn or corrected? For example, the notorious parrot telepathy story, debunked here ( http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000398.html ). However when I click the link ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3430481.stm ) in the post, I get directed to a different story by a different author, timestamped May 2007, whereas the original article was from January 2004. The internet has a long memory, and the original article is available for all to see in the Internet Archive ( http://web.archive.org/web/20040402142457/http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3430481.stm ). Is this not misleading, verging on mendacious, as people can write on their blogs commenting about one version of an article, but a reader coming across it later (via the blog link rather than via search) might find an entirely different article there which renders the commentary nonsensical?

Surely a note at the top to say "this article has been withdrawn" or "subsequent developments showed this not to be true" would be appropriate. Otherwise how do you know whether the charge was withdrawn?

This raises bigger questions in terms of how corrections are dealt with. Currently the BBC does not acknowledge corrections at all (I notice that the NewsWatch Notes and Corrections index has been closed - why?). The online magazine Slate has a policy of marking any corrections with an asterisk that tells the reader what correction was made. Wikipedia tracks the entire history of an article and can show you how it looked at any point in time, as well as allowing permanent links to point to a specific version of the article. These are both better policies than not acknowledging mistakes at all.

  • 3.
  • At 01:05 PM on 14 Jun 2007,
  • Steven Martin wrote:

I don't think it's a real problem. It's just a reality of the web. I mean, if you were to search on Iraq you would find a lot of stuff about how Iraq is a threat and should be invaded. All those stories planted by M16 as part of "Operation Mass Appeal" will still be there even though we know it was all nonsense.

In a similar way, all the nonsense being planted in the media about Iran will also still be there even after it all turns out to be lies aimed at manufacturing consent for military action.

  • 4.
  • At 01:21 PM on 14 Jun 2007,
  • Karen wrote:

What's the alternative? Editing or deleting old news which proves to be inaccurate smacks of revisionism - we need to have accurate accounts of the news as and when it happened online.

  • 5.
  • At 01:30 PM on 14 Jun 2007,
  • jim-uk wrote:

Well placed links to updates should be enough along with timestamps for the story.

  • 6.
  • At 02:05 PM on 14 Jun 2007,
  • JG wrote:

Shame that many date stamps do not reflect the actual time changes were made, so called 'stealth edits', examples of which are many.

I'm more interested in knowing how this finally plays out-the woolmer saga. Like i told my friend last night, there is definitely more to this than meets the eye.

PS: sorry, i don't really know about the time stamp date thing you guys are talking about!

You really should avoid editing stories from the past. I think archived stories should be seen more like old newspapers, which obviously are never changed. Once published that's pretty much it. Also, you run the risk of being accused of trying to cover something up or manipulate things.

I agree with JG, you should make clear when a story is edited. Just for the sake of transparency.

Why not have a little message at the top of the article saying "This article is now out-dated" ... or words to that effect.

I'm sure your coding bods could sort something out so that whenever an article on a particular subject (Woolmer, in this case) is posted, the previous articles carry this message.

The date-stamp is useful, but if I was, for example, looking at articles about Woolmer and I saw a date-stamp of the time of the World Cup, I wouldn't necessarily question that -- as that's when it all happened.

A little block on the top of the article when newer information is available will solve all this.

Dave

  • 10.
  • At 05:44 AM on 15 Jun 2007,
  • fatbaldybloke wrote:

In a recent internet forum debate (read argument) about torture in Iraq someone proudly threw in a link to the BBC news site showing a story of British troops torturing Iraqi civilians, obviously hastily found with a search engine, and claimed 'proof' of his argument. The story was, of course, the initial report on the infamous Daily Mirror faked photographs.

If you had revised the initial report you would have denied me the snug feeling I got when I pointed this out to him.

  • 11.
  • At 09:25 AM on 15 Jun 2007,
  • Leonard Boyce wrote:

There should be no problems leaving the stories as they are. We need historical records to be accurate, which they are on the information given. They are many instances of world history being reported incorrectly but the fact they have been reported is good for researchers.
Its not beyond the wit of man to read these stories in context. Please keep
reporting events accuratly as they
happen.

  • 12.
  • At 11:18 PM on 18 Jun 2007,
  • Jenny wrote:

Comment 1, asking why video reports do not have timestamps, if they help with this problem, is absolutely right. I would add that archive used in later reports equally needs them, and the same for audio reports and stills.

You really should clearly link stories to updates too.

You wouldn't have been so besmirched by the misinformation surrounding the Woolmer death if you have been more careful with your sources, making clear that you were pandering to, and feeding from the low reporting standards in the press of the two countries most interested - Jamaica and Pakistan. When one of your correspondents - a Pakistani - commented that strangulation was featured because it is a popular method of killing in Pakistan (when the death was half the world away), it really said it all. No doubt corruption, poisoning, and sex were featured for similar reasons, vis-a-vis the two countries. None of it having anything actually to do with the particular death.

That isn't news reporting; it is entertainment. It is Murdoch's giving the audience what you think it wants whilst posing as a news source.

The BBC is nothing if it does not stick to its BBC standards when abroad or using foreign reporters. You are devaluing your brand.

  • 13.
  • At 01:52 AM on 19 Jun 2007,
  • Jenny wrote:

fatbaldybloke wrote: "In a recent internet forum debate (read argument) about torture in Iraq someone proudly threw in a link to the BBC news site showing a story of British troops torturing Iraqi civilians, obviously hastily found with a search engine, and claimed 'proof' of his argument. The story was, of course, the initial report on the infamous Daily Mirror faked photographs. If you had revised the initial report you would have denied me the snug feeling I got when I pointed this out to him."

"Preparing" an Iraqi hotel receptionist for US "interrogation", to death, not counting, of course. All the witnesses having been (illegally) hooded so unable to identify which of the British soldiers in the troop that arrested and imprisoned him actually did the fatal deeds.

Please don't try to say the British don't do torture. Ony this week one of the worst US practitioners revealed that many of his colleagues first attended British interrogation courses. Yes, they later studied books by WWII survivors to learn more advanced Nazi techniques, but their grounding was British.

1. Johnny – video does have a date against it when you see it in search results, but not once you launch it in the player – I’m looking into this further with our A/V team.
2. Neil - you are right to point out we should have explained what happened to the original story, and we’re adding a note to the bottom of the new story to do that, along with the link you provided to the Internet Archive. The Newswatch website when it launched had a number of indexes which aimed to increase accountability – the ‘Notes and Corrections’ page was one of them, but was never a detailed or comprehensive list. When we launched the Editors' blog last year, it seemed to us it was a more effective way of achieving the same aims, and we reduced the scope of the Newswatch site to what it is today.
Also, (and in response to JG, Kevin and Dave) as far as corrections in general go it’s our policy to correct anything that’s wrong as soon as we become aware of it. As I said here previously when we make a major change or revision we republish it with a new datestamp, indicating it’s a new version of the story. If there’s been a change to a key point in the story we will often also point this out in the later version (saying something like "earlier reports said..."). Lesser changes, including minor factual errors, corrected spellings and reworded paragraphs - go through with no new datestamp because there hasn’t been a substantive change or update in the story. There may be ways in which, as Neil suggests, we could track all the changes automatically and make them more obvious to readers that way, but at present we haven’t got that ability.

Re Neil's comments: it's good to see the telepathic parrot story finally being binned, even if under strange circumstances (whatever does "factual inaccuracies we were unable to correct" mean?). Perhaps you could give attention now to the equally ludicrous Puzzle over three-headed frog, which misinterpets commonplace frog mating behaviour as a sinister mutation. Wanting correction of a regional silly season animal story is perhaps a trivial issue, but it's never to the BBC's credit when misinformation becomes fossilized on its website.

Perhaps you could give attention now

Hellooo? That was not just rhetoric. Could someone at the BBC actually look, and get opinion from someone who actually knows about frogs, and even god forbid get off their arse and reply, as I've been asking for about three years?

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