When wire services make mistakes, misinformation spreads quickly

News organizations rely on wire services to provide their audiences with an up-to-date, comprehensive window into the world. For smaller newsrooms, agencies such as The Associated Press and Reuters enable national and international stories to appear alongside local coverage.

Even large newsrooms can’t cover every angle. The wires help them run stories they couldn’t otherwise tell. The two largest wires, AP, based in New York City, and Thomson Reuters, based in Toronto, have teams in nearly 500 locations around the world. Each operates in more than 100 countries.

But the broad reach of the wires can backfire.

When mistakes inevitably occur, they multiply across dozens or even hundreds of websites, seep into other reporting that’s built on wire stories and leave audiences with false impressions.

Both AP and Reuters prioritize transparency and spell out clear-cut correction policies. In its Statement of News Values and Principles, AP says, “When we’re wrong, we must say so as soon as possible. When we make a correction in the current cycle, we point out the error and its fix in the editor’s note. A correction must always be labeled a correction in the editor’s note. We do not use euphemisms such as ‘recasts,’ ‘fixes,’ ‘clarifies’ or ‘changes’ when correcting a factual error.”

For its part, Reuters’s handbook says that it “is transparent about errors. We rectify them promptly and clearly, whether in a story, a caption, a graphic or a script. We do not disguise or bury corrections in subsequent leads or stories.”

Still, the predominant distribution model for wire stories, which involves pasting and, ostensibly, editing copy before it runs on individual news sites, means mistakes sometimes only get corrected at the source — on the wires’ websites.

That’s the case for a story AP published last July about the unsolved murder of Ukrainian journalist Pavel Sheremet. Sheremet was killed in a car bombing in 2016.

In the same story, AP reported that Volodymyr Volovodyuk, a Ukrainian reporter, had been beaten to death. But Volovodyuk survived the attack.

Six days later, AP issued a correction: “In a story July 20, The Associated Press reported erroneously that Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Volovodyuk was beaten to death in a June 12 attack. He was beaten but survived.”

Visitors to www.apnews.com will get the correct facts, but the original story lives on across the web.

On local newspaper websites like The Seattle Times, The Providence Journal, The Peoria, Illinois, Journal Star.

On national and international broadcast sites, including ABC News, VOA News and Fox News.

And on local broadcast sites including Fox 13 Memphis, 101.5 News/Talk WNWS and WFTV 9.

Uncorrected errors are a problem, acknowledged John Daniszewski, vice president and editor at large for standards at the AP.

The AP has a responsibility to issue corrections promptly, Daniszewski said, but it’s up to news organizations to reflect those corrections.

“If they care about their news report being factually correct, they have the responsibility to make sure that the correction goes through to anyone who would have seen the original story or would have used the original story,” Daniszewski said.

Based on my analysis of AP’s website, www.apnews.com, the service issued 149 corrections between Jan. 20 and Feb. 19. That represents a tiny fraction of AP’s monthly output — the news co-op publishes 2,000 stories a day, according to its 2016 annual report. That means, at least for this one-month period, that far less than 1 percent of AP stories required corrections.

But at a time when trust in media continues to decline, uncorrected errors on any scale raise concerns. My analysis shows that the original, uncorrected versions of more than half of the 149 stories persist on a range of websites, including prominent publishers such as U.S. News & World Report, CBS News and The Chicago Tribune. That’s a problem for readers of these stories, all of whom expect accuracy.

In a case of problematic sourcing, published by Reuters in 2013, a single tweet from an unverified account formed the basis of a story about an Eritrean Olympian whose relative was kidnapped in the Sinai region of Egypt for a $44,000 ransom.

Human trafficking in the Sinai is a serious problem, but no evidence was ever produced to support the premise of the article, which was accessible via Reuters’ website until editors were contacted during the reporting on this story and deemed it did not meet the agency’s sourcing standards.

However, it remains accessible on a Yahoo site.

Wire services publish a daunting amount of content — more than any single news outlet could produce. Much of this material meets the highest standards of journalism.

But problems do slip through. My analysis showed that AP issued about five corrections a day from late January to late February 2018. It’s an unavoidable part of journalism; mistakes happen, and they’re fixed.

But for wire services, the stakes are higher. Errors can be distributed to hundreds of affiliates, and the network of organizations involved in the publication of a wire story can become a liability. When wires make corrections, subscribers often don’t, in turn, update their stories. And when wires make uncorrected mistakes, subscribers may not catch them.

The solution that is the most effective is also the most expensive: more fact-checking and tighter editing. If a hiring spree in these departments is not an option, what else can be done?

The problem with the spread of misinformation through wire services stems from the technical approach to distributing stories.

The wires share their stories with subscribers who, in turn, copy and paste them into their content management systems. That provides a chance to make edits and ensures compatibility with every subscriber’s platform and stylebook. But it also prevents automatic updating when corrections are issued.

The option to embed wire stories — much like a YouTube video or Instagram post — would be one way to ensure that changes to the source document apply to all copies, regardless of how many subscribers ran the story.

This approach does have its drawbacks. News organizations can’t adapt content to suit their needs, and it wouldn’t work for the non-digital platforms wire copy appears on, Daniszewski noted.

Another option to reduce uncorrected errors online — where unsuspecting readers are most likely to encounter them — could be thought of as a “partial embed.” Such an approach would involve adding a snippet of code to wire stories that pings a central server and automatically adds a disclaimer to a story whenever corrections or updates are found.

Also missing from the current approach to sharing wire copy is a uniform mechanism for subscribers — or readers, for that matter — to report factual concerns. If all wire stories came with an option to report a problem back to the wire service, who in turn could see a consolidated list of concerns, a feedback loop could be created among readers, publishers and wires to raise the quality of content for every story.

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