Upworthy’s GIF-laden correction sparks debate

Viral news curator Upworthy featured a video that put McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets under a microscope to reveal “strange fibers, blue objects, red coloring and other odd shapes.”

That’s what the description of the video on YouTube says it shows — and as of this writing, the clip has nearly 2.7 million views. But as for actually offering anything of scientific or factual value, it comes up far short.

After featuring it, Upworthy realized it wasn’t a piece of content worth sharing. Part of that realization came via comments on Upworthy’s Facebook page, where people called out the organization for “fear mongering” and a lack of analysis and facts.

Upworthy did the right thing and issued a correction. And because it’s Upworthy, let’s take note of the headline: “CORRECTION: That Time We Let Pretend Science Ruin Real Science And Decided To Apologize For It.”

They also adopted an interesting storytelling method for the correction. That choice inspired a debate on Twitter today among journalists such as Josh Stearns of Free Press, News Corp executive Raju Narisetti and Amanda Zamora of ProPublica. (This, even through the correction was first published back in August.)

“Rather than explain the problems ourselves, we’re going to let all our brilliant commenters do it for us,” read the correction, which went on to highlight several Facebook comments that took the site to task.

A correction driven by community reaction, which highlights that reaction? Great.

But what about the GIFs? Yes, the correction also features GIFs of Upworthy staff members saying sorry interspersed throughout the Facebook comments. The image above is one of them.

Sincere or flippant?

Here are two of the GIFs in question:

Josh Stearns kicked things off by initially sharing the correction with a positive comment:

That brought reaction and discussion:

What’s the verdict?

A few thoughts from me:

Bravo for experimenting. I love the ambition and the attempt to do something different. News organizations’ corrections should represent their culture and voice. The Economist does it. BuzzFeed (now) does it. I’m personally not crazy about the addition of the GIFs for the reason cited in my next point, but I appreciate the effort to bring something new to the correction— something that may in fact resonate with their audience. (See my final point.)

A distraction? I agree with Narisetti and Zamora that it’s a net negative if a correction causes people to question its sincerity. There should be no question, no opportunity for misinterpretation. Corrections must bring clarity, not confusion. It must also be clear what was wrong — and that’s not explicit from Upworthy.

Accountability. I suspect one reason for the GIFs is Upworthy wants to show that its staff takes this issue seriously. They are literally putting their faces forward and saying sorry. That’s the one aspect of the use of GIFs that I like. They’re saying, “We’re the people who should have done better and we’re sorry we didn’t.”

Think about the tools/narrative. What if instead of GIFs the staff had created a short video including clips in which they said the same things? I have a feeling it would seem more sincere to people: GIFs carry some baggage, with people seeing them as flippant and jokey in most contexts. So, consider whether the tools and narrative devices you use in a correction will hurt or help your efforts. And look at what you’ve done and ask, “Do these GIFs help people get the right message, or could they be misinterpreted?”

What happened? One thing you don’t get a very good sense of from the correction is why the video was such an issue, and how the mistake happened. If you scroll down towards the end of the correction, Upworthy shares that it has a fact-checking team (emphasis theirs):

 We have a very cohesive and well-implemented vetting and fact-checking process at Upworthy. Editors look at content before it’s curated for our site. Our trained fact-checking team investigates finalized content before we publish it for public consumption.

And what happened this time? “Yet somehow, ALL of us totally blew it on this one.” It would be good to know a bit more about the failure point. (I’ve emailed for more information.)

Two encouraging items included in the correction are the promise from Upworthy to introduce a dedicated corrections page, and their stated commitment to “be damn sure we’ll try to give the correction as much attention as we gave the original piece of content.” (Emphasis theirs.)

Upworthy knows how to make content spread, and needs to bring those skills to bear when it comes to corrections. It’s great that they recognize it.

What do the fans think? Enough about what journalists say. How did the correction go over with Upworthy’s Facebook community? As far as I can tell, with its close to 500 shares and more than 4,000 likes as of this writing, people seem to love it. Some sample comments:

In the end, I suspect that’s the feedback Upworthy cares about most.

I’ve emailed Upworthy for more information about the correction and will update with any new information.

Correction: A previous version of this story characterized the Upworthy video as recently posted. It was posted in August 2013.

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  • http://www.JeffAnsell.com Jeff Ansell

    It’s interesting Craig, to see how you reported Upworthy’s correction process of how they documented it. Well done. I’m a media trainer and author of http://www.WhenTheHeadlineIsYOU.com

    I regularly address issues like this with my clients, so it was fascinating to see the social media conversation the correction elicited from people on the pro and con sides of the Upworthy equation.

    Your Poynter overview also speaks to the challenge regarding disclosure, and how opinions are impacted by bias. Social media companies can’t, in one breath, trumpet transparency, and in another downplay their correction when they make a mistake. Upworthy did a great job here, but many don’t.

    In my mind, the really revealing comments are from people who question how genuine the Upworthy apology is, and if it is heartfelt. There are a few human relation rules a spokesperson must follow when their brand is in crisis.

    First, you always have to put yourself in the shoes of the victim – in this case it would be the viewers Upworthy was trying to influence who felt like they were being manipulated.

    Next, you have to apologize in a way that is genuine.

    Last, a spokesperson has to let people know what the company is doing to prevent the situation from happening again.

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  • jcstearns

    Craig – thanks for taking the time to write this up. You’ve really highlighted a couple of the key things I found interesting about this correction, as well as some reasons why elements of it may not work. So often, corrections take the form of a note placed at the bottom of an article which doesn’t really help anyone who has already read that article and likely isn’t coming back.

    I liked that Upworthy did a full post about their error, that they featured the comments of their community, they made it shareable and pushed it out over their various networks. We often say we want corrections to travel as far as the original error. To that end Jeff Jarvis had good input on Twitter too: https://twitter.com/jeffjarvis/status/437625135403892736 and http://buzzmachine.com/2007/09/02/the-content-map-and-corrections/. I also like the idea of a dedicated corrections page, perhaps with a badge or flag on the home page when a new correction has been published.

    For me the GIFs were actually the least interesting part of the correction – but seemed to get the most attention. Thanks for pointing out the other elements at work here. I never meant to suggest that news orgs should use this model wholesale – and in fact I walked back my original Tweet in my own “correction” after hearing good critiques from @raju and @amzam (https://twitter.com/jcstearns/status/437622538806374400). But I’m glad this has sparked a discussion about how we can make corrections more visible, make our work more transparent, and try experimenting with new forms. I think these experiments are important to thinking about how corrections can help us build trust and engagement with our community.

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