April 25, 2012

Monday evening was Election Night in the province of Alberta, Canada.

In a scenario reminiscent of the 1948 U.S. presidential contest between Thomas Dewey and incumbent Harry Truman, the general consensus of pundits, pollsters and political journalists was that the upstart Wildrose Party was going to end the multi-decade dynasty of the province’s Progressive Conservatives. A majority Wildrose government was widely predicted.

Voters had other plans.

The incumbent PCs won a solid majority. Cue the hand wringing.

The front page of some editions of Tuesday’s National Post featured a column that was later pulled. (Click for larger)

Unlike 1948, there wasn’t a glaringly incorrect headline that will live on in history. But there were missteps, and in one notable case the election column of a prominent national columnist, Andrew Coyne, was pulled from the Internet and print editions. (Along with Coyne, another contributor to the National Post had to eat a little crow the day after. There were others.)

“Unless something astonishing happens,” Coyne’s column began, “the Wildrose Party will form the next government of Alberta.”

He called the Wildrose win astonishing, adding that in victory it “will have taken down one of the most powerful political empires in the country’s history.”

The column ran on the front page, above the fold of early editions of the National Post with the headline, “Wildrose changed political game.”

No, not exactly the kind of declarative call made by the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1948: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Even with the hedging in the lead, though, the column was focused entirely on an incorrect premise.

Coyne had playfully tweeted earlier on Election Day about the fact he had filed before the results were in. (This was due to a deadline imposed on him.)

Journalists pay a price when they publicly place a bet and lose, even if they attempt to hedge it. Coyne lost, and in an ensuing discussion Tuesday night on Twitter, I made the point that he and his editors could have done more to inform readers about why the column ended up online and in print, and why it was pulled. (That discussion is collected below.)

Coyne also produced a new column Tuesday to replace the one that was removed from his employer’s websites and taken out of print editions:

“Unless something astonishing happens,” I wrote in my last column, “the Wildrose Party will form the next government of Alberta.” With the benefit of hindsight, I can only say, how right I was. Something astonishing did happen, with precisely the consequence I implied: Wildrose will not form the next government of Alberta. Rather, Alberta will be governed by yet another massive Progressive Conservative majority. I don’t mean to gloat, but I feel some bragging rights are in order. Alas, my editor and I agreed the column had to be pulled, as everything else in it was based on the opposite premise.

Based on Coyne’s tweet Monday night, his first column had been published online by 7 p.m. EDT. According to the time stamp of his second column, roughly 24 hours passed before it went online Tuesday.

In the meantime, there was as far as I could see no communication from the National Post or its owner Postmedia explaining what had happened with the first column. The closest that Coyne came was a tweet Monday night saying, “Um, I think this counts as ‘something astonishing.’ “

Online readers also were not directed to the new column once it was online. People clicking on links to Coyne’s first column, and those who found it via search, ended up on an error page. (If you’re interested in more about the ethics and practices of unpublishing content, Poynter has information here and here.)

On Twitter I suggested to Coyne that the newspaper publish an editor’s note or apology. Coyne and a top editor at one of his employer’s Web properties disagreed, as did a former colleague of Coyne’s.

A conversation about unpublishing and informing readers

Below is a Storify of the discussion on Twitter. My main concern is for readers: How do we best serve them when something like this happens? What are the responsibilities of journalists and news organizations?

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Craig Silverman (craig@craigsilverman.ca) is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
Craig Silverman

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