MediaBugs Launches with Plan to ‘Fix the News’ by Tracking Mistakes, Corrections

MediaBugs — an open-source, correction-tracking service — plans to launch publicly today with the goal of helping to build trust between journalists and the audiences they serve.
 
Created by Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg, MediaBugs will provide news consumers with a centralized place to report and discuss the errors they see in San Fransisco Bay Area news stories. Ideally, Rosenberg said, news organizations will turn to MediaBugs to see what errors people are reporting and then respond accordingly.

Correction-tracking software programs like MediaBugs, he said in a phone interview, have the potential to provide greater accountability when the media errs.

“The public apparently has lost a lot of trust in the media,” said Rosenberg, who won a $335,000 Knight News Challenge Grant for the project. “Maybe if we close the loop more tightly between people who find the errors and people who fix them, we can reverse that dynamic.”

How does MediaBugs work?
 
Once someone reports an error, Rosenberg said he will notify the corresponding news organization and then leave it up to the editors there to correct the mistake or respond accordingly.

He’ll mark the error “closed” once it’s corrected. Reports can also be withdrawn (if the person who made the report later realizes the “error” wasn’t actually an error), and they can be labeled as “unresolved” if the media outlet never responds. Rosenberg said he plans to encourage those who file error reports to make the changes in the bug’s status themselves.

All reports posted by registered MediaBugs users will be published in real time. If Rosenberg and MediaBugs Associate Director Mark Follman consider them to be off-topic, they will mark them as such and the report will stop appearing on the site except for when users search “off topic bugs.” A bug is considered “off topic” if it’s frivolous or doesn’t relate to a San Fransisco Bay Area story or media outlet. (MediaBugs could eventually expand beyond the Bay Area, but there are no immediate plans to do so, Rosenberg said.)
 
If a bug report is posted anonymously, it will go into a queue for Rosenberg’s review instead of being automatically posted to the site.
 
“This allows us to take advantage of reports where the person filing it might have some legitimate basis for wanting to remain anonymous, while preventing the site from being swamped by spammers or otherwise experiencing the problem of ‘too much anonymity,’ ” Rosenberg said.

He noted that there are a lot more errors in stories than most journalists would like to believe. Research by Scott Maier, associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, shows that fewer than 2 percent of errors in daily newspapers are ever actually corrected. The explanations vary.
 
“Readers might call the reporter in question, but that provides little assurance that a correction will follow,” Maier said by e-mail. “A reader could try to track down the reporter’s editor, but that could also cause more trouble than it’s worth. Most newspapers provide a phone number and e-mail address for corrections, but leaving a message is also an unsatisfactory channel of communication. It’s little wonder that the corrections box is such a sparsely used mechanism for venting reader frustration when errors occur.”
 
What do news organizations think of MediaBugs?
 
Rosenberg has met with dozens of local news organizations, some of which have had to lay off copy editors in recent years, to let them know about MediaBugs. The news orgs have the option of embedding a MediaBugs widget on their websites so that the public can report errors from the media site itself, rather than having to visit MediaBugs.org to do so.

For the past month, MediaBugs has been open to private users who have reported the errors they’ve seen. One user said he found a factual error in a San Fransisco Chronicle article about iPads.

Another called out The Daily Californian for overusing the word “been” in one of its stories. This is exactly the type of “error” that Vlae Kershner, news director of SFGate, the San Fransisco Chronicle’s website, doesn’t want to have to address.
 
“I don’t want to have to deal with grammar or with organized campaigns from political groups and get into political fights,” Kershner said by phone. “For the basic meat and potatoes correction — the story said this and it should have said this — then [MediaBugs] is a great idea.”
 
Rosenberg said he’s thought a lot about where to draw the line between substantial factual errors and routine grammatical or style errors. For now, he’s going to wait and see what people choose to report.
 
“The project is in part an experiment in figuring out what ‘bugs’ the public about media, so if what people really want to do is improve the quality of the prose they read, that will tell us something useful,” Rosenberg said. “Personally I’m hoping that we’ll have less language-cop activity and more error correction.”

Bruce Koon, news director at KQED Public Radio, said that although the station hasn’t yet determined whether it will use MediaBugs, he thinks it’s worth exploring technology that utilizes crowd-sourcing to help make news more accurate. MediaBugs, he said, could help remind journalists of how important it is to engage with their audience.

Kathleen Wentz, managing editor of the East Bay Express, agreed but said she’s not sure that the weekly paper needs outside help to find and fix errors.

“Usually readers send us a direct e-mail or leave a comment on our website about a correction, and since we’re a fairly small newsroom, the correction is made fairly quickly,” Wentz said by e-mail. “It’s nice to have another avenue for readers to interact with us, and we welcome that interaction. But like I said, our current system seems to work fine too.”
 
Is the public likely to use a correction-tracking software?

Based on his research
, Maier said news consumers are more interested in fact-checking than most people might think. But they’re often reluctant to report the errors they find. Maier’s latest study shows that news sources reported less than 10 percent of the errors they identified in the newspaper.

“When asked why they hadn’t reported the error(s), many responded that the inaccuracies were inconsequential. But they also asked, ‘why bother?’ ” Maier said. “It seemed to many that the corrections box did little to remedy the mistake. Or worse, some said they feared reporting the error might cause retribution.”

Craig Silverman, best known for his “Regret the Error” blog, said the Internet has made it easier for the public to verify information and call out journalists when they’ve made a mistake.

“People love to see someone calling bullshit on someone else. Fact checking is becoming one of the great American pastimes of the Internet age,” said Silverman, who’s an adviser for MediaBugs. “There’s something about having access to an ocean of information and then being able to easily share information that’s making people want to engage in fact checking.”

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While running a correction might make journalists cringe, doing so can actually make them look good. Maier said public opinion research shows that the public tends to trust the media more when they see corrections being made. In that sense, correction-tracking software like MediaBugs, Maier and Silverman said, can help journalists gain credibility.

“Imagine if people get involved and the news organizations don’t respond. That would be a terrible result and a poor practice,” Silverman said by phone. “I hope they see this as an opportunity and that they really put in some of the time that’s needed to make it a success. Admitting your errors only makes you look good.”

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