Airbrushing Online Newspaper Articles After the Fact

I’ve seen this on more than a few occasions and find it very disturbing.

So, the Washington Post published a story on its website, revised the story to omit details that appeared in the relevant piece, and yet did not disclose these facts to the Post’s online readers. Isn’t this a problem? There may well have been valid reasons for revising the story. Perhaps an editor thought the story got relevant facts wrong or concluded reference to the embezzlement scandal was unfair. Whatever the reason for the change, the Post should have disclosed that changes were made and that it had decided to excise information included in the original story.

[From The Volokh Conspiracy » Blog Archive » Revising Web-based Newspaper Articles Without Informing Readers:]

It’s one thing to correct references or relevant facts but to materially change entire sections of an article is alarming and undermines the central argument that newspapers themselves make about why they are essential systems of record for society. The record of an event is only changing as the timeline plays out and new facts and arguments emerge, which may serve to invalidate previous reporting and in that case should be noted as new content, not airbrushing of already published content. At the very least a record of corrections should append each online story when necessary rather than flagrant material editing of content done “under the cover of darkness”.

Newspapers must recognize that the public trust they cherish is at risk whenever they rewrite an article that is already published online. This is no different than how the use of Photoshop has thrown into question the authenticity of online images, to which I cite a long history of image scandals that resulted from creative use of photo editing technology. I commented to my wife just over the weekend about the cover image on a fitness magazine she had, her comment back to me that “oh you can’t believe any cover on a magazine” revealed the extent to which pervasive mistrust of fashion and lifestyle media has taken hold. If newspapers wish to avoid the same condition they must revisit the policies and procedures by which they treat online content.

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