Last week I saw a refreshingly honest post on a site called All Facebook, which provides reporting and analysis of, you guessed it, all things Facebook. The post that attracted my attention was a follow-up to something that had been posted on the site the day before. Nick O’Neill, blogger and founder of the site, wrote:
“Since the article was so off base, we decided to pull it all together. While the logic we used was a round-about logic, we weren’t the only ones confused. However rather than updating a post which has practically become useless, we’ve pulled it all together.”
Talk about transparency being the new objectivity. O’Neill’s approach struck me as more forthright than many bloggers, who use the term “update” when they really mean “correction.” And it was more up-front than news organizations that are willing to correct a minor factual error but won’t acknowledge if the premise of a story is “completely off,” to use O’Neill’s words.
The ‘unpublishing’ question
While some areas of online publishing have developed rapidly — how user comments are handled, for example — the “unpublishing” dilemma is as perplexing as ever. A decision to unpublish a story is wrapped up in how a site handles corrections, just as newspaper and TV retractions are reserved for extreme cases in which a correction isn’t enough. And, as I learned from my conversation with O’Neill, it has a lot to do with your standards for publishing in the first place.
When my colleague Bill Mitchell wrote about unpublishing a couple of years ago, he concluded that pulling a story should be the last resort, not the first. (Many, if not most, requests we get for unpublishing — or hear about — come from people who say they’ve been harmed by some piece of ever-Googleable news, not an error by the news organization.)
I bet most online publishers, whether All Facebook or the Chicago Tribune, would agree with Mitchell. In fact, O’Neill told me that he rarely removes content from his site. (We’re learning more at Poynter about how others handle this, and as we do, we want to help you learn more.)
All Facebook is an example of what we’ve taken to calling the Fifth Estate at Poynter — an enterprise that creates journalism, but without the trappings or conventions of a traditional news outlet. More and more these niche sites are tracking the ripples of news caused by companies like Facebook. When the ripples become a big wave, their work quickly moves from the Fifth Estate to the more established Fourth Estate.
All of this makes it important to understand how such sites gather, publish and in some cases, unpublish. This is how O’Neill described his process and values.
He’s comfortable with reporting the truth as it develops
Last Thursday, O’Neill found a link on a site that aggregates news of interest to programmers. Someone had blogged that his e-mail address was exposed by a Facebook page that was apparently visible to the public and had been indexed by Google.
It appeared that someone had uncovered yet another Facebook privacy lapse, and O’Neill tried to figure out what was going on.
O’Neill said he contacted Facebook’s communications department, which usually responds quickly to his inquiries. When he didn’t hear back after 30 minutes or so, he posted the item. He temporarily pulled the item when the company asked for more time to respond, and he posted it again with a comment from the company.
Already, this looks very different from the traditional newsgathering process.
“Writing on a blog,” O’Neill said, “I’m pretty flexible with the truth evolving. Because that happens with a news story sometimes, that we get a half-piece of the story and you wonder, do you post the article or not?”
That was not the end of the process. He and someone with Facebook’s communications department started debating the accuracy of his post. He thought the company’s disagreement amounted to a technical argument that didn’t invalidate his post.
But after discussing the issue with a Facebook developer who also voiced his disagreement, O’Neill updated the post about 10 times, striking through sentences and adding new information. One of the last updates said, “This post is effectively destroyed,” and O’Neill decided to just take down the whole thing.
O’Neill felt he could effectively argue the post was accurately updated, but beneath the strikethroughs and other changes “it still showed all this false information.”
He believes there’s merit in publishing information even if it turns out to be incorrect
Despite the multiple changes and corrections and eventual removal of the post, O’Neill stands by the process. “Eventually the truth comes out in one form or another,” he said.
“I honestly think that publishing information reveals the truth quicker, as it creates an opportunity for others to come forward with more information,” he told me in a follow-up e-mail after our conversation. “In this instance it was Google and Facebook that needed to provide information; however that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s a tipster or someone else that can help create the truth.”
He noted that he was right about one important element: If someone publicized the link to this particular Facebook page (for instance, by linking to it on a blog), Google would index that page and reveal the e-mail addresses on that page. Facebook and Google quickly worked to fix that.
You can’t really un-ring the bell online
Some bloggers have said that readers understand the information they read is often in the process of being reported. O’Neill believes this. He also believes it’s the readers’ job to make sure they’re properly informed, but he didn’t make it easy for readers to get the correct information in this case.
The first people to see the post, he acknowledged, saw incorrect information. If they checked back, the link to that post returned a 404 or “page not found” error. He didn’t explain why he removed the post until the next day.
Likewise, he couldn’t pull the story from his site’s RSS feed, so those readers didn’t know the story had been unpublished. Again, clicking on the links wouldn’t have told them anything.
And one commenter pointed out that unpublishing didn’t help to inform readers of the hundreds of blogs that had cited and linked to his post.
O’Neill said he would have liked to redirect to the post in which he explained his retraction, but he doesn’t have an easy way of doing that and didn’t have the time. “I justified it out of the perspective that it’s ultimately the user’s job to become educated.”
He knows that how he deals with these issues affects his credibility, reputation and survival
O’Neill started his site three years ago, sold it to the company that owns Mediabistro.com, and acknowledges “large ambitions” for the site (as well as related ones covering social media). He attempts to balance his desire for more traffic with his desire for credibility — among his readers and by the people who work at Facebook.
“At the end of the day, the more content I have, the more traffic I get. So I need to publish as much information as possible about Facebook,” he said.
However, he said he’s conscious about maintaining his relationship with Facebook, which he described as being cooperative over the years, even back when he was starting out and his work wasn’t as accurate. (Facebook had 15 million users when he first started blogging about it. Now it has more than 400 million.)
“If you’re going to post something damaging, then you better have the facts right,” he said. “Because the last thing I want to be doing is not only damaging their brand, but damaging their brand without any sort of legitimate backing.”
So he won’t bury the lead if he learns of a security glitch, he said, but he won’t sensationalize it, either. “That will drive traffic, but it’s not good traffic, and it’s going to hurt my reputation.”
That brings us to a value that he shares with journalists old and new: He wants to be seen as an unbiased source of news about the social network. “If you want to maintain a trustworthy reputation with your readers, you need to publish the truth eventually, right?” he asked. “As close as you can come to truth.”