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Lost in the rush to break news first, is transparency and, consequently, readers' trust in the media.

In case you were vacationing under a rock in late October, here are the salient details of the now-infamous Rob Ford 911 debacle: Mary Walsh, of the comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes, showed up at Ford’s house. Apparently feeling threatened by her surprise appearance (Walsh frequently films joke interviews with politicians), Ford called 911.

The next morning, CBC.ca broke a story alleging that the mayor had hurled profanities at 911 dispatchers and may have tried to use his title to get faster emergency service. Ford was forced to issue a statement in which he apologized, while still denying certain elements of the CBC’s story–namely, that he had called the dispatchers “bitches.”

But that wasn’t enough to satisfy Torontonians, many of whom demanded that recordings of Ford’s 911 calls be released. The next day, Police Chief Bill Blair also got involved, saying he had listened to the calls and assuring the public that “the mayor did not describe himself as the original account claimed.”

While most commentators focused on the extent to which the 911 incident was embarrassing for Ford and for Toronto, few have discussed a potentially more serious issue: the manner in which CBC.ca published and revised its reporting as the story developed. The article relied on multiple unnamed sources, and it wasn’t long before these sources were called into question.

This in itself isn’t all that unusual. But with the realities of fast-paced online news, things become a bit trickier. The CBC’s original story was published at 5:18 a.m. on October 27. Over the course of the day, it went through several updates. By the time it was last updated, after 9 p.m. the same night, it had become a completely different piece–new information had been added, old information had disappeared, and it even had a different headline.

Again, this is something that newspapers do all the time on their websites. But the CBC story about Ford’s 911 calls illustrates how problematic the practice can be. In a situation where there were serious questions about the sources used, and about whether it was ethical for the CBC to report the story at all, readers were unable to access the original reporting. They couldn’t go back and see whether the CBC had reported that Ford had said something, or whether sources claimed that he had said something, for instance. There was no way for anyone to revisit and assess the original content. It was made invisible.

The problem is not confined to CBC.ca. (Ed note: the Toronto Standard also revises articles–mostly for style and clarity–after they’ve been published.) It happens everywhere, including at the New York Times. In a June 25, 2011 column, that paper’s public editor, Arthur Brisbane, noted that “digital news is often updated throughout the day and night, sometimes many times. Versions evolve and sometimes morph into something quite different … How The Times tracks and manages this can be very confusing.”

This is an issue that the news industry should have addressed by now. The Internet is no longer new; we’re aware that news is broken almost exclusively on the web. Yet many journalists and editors seem to think that it’s impossible to keep clear records of everything that happens on a paper’s website. Later in the same Times column, Brisbane writes that he discussed online updating with then-managing editor Jill Abramson, who told him that “it’s unrealistic to preserve an ‘immutable, permanent record of everything we have done.’”

Abramson’s remark implies a belief that logging the changes to a news story over time would be too mammoth a task for news outlets–that there are simply too many updates to keep track of. But this doesn’t have to be the case. What may be at the heart of the problem is the Internet-induced sprint to break news first and fastest.

In an environment where scoops are often rushed onto the web prematurely (remember the confusion caused by news outlets’ incorrectly reporting that Gabrielle Giffords had died after being shot last January?), one wonders whether online news needs to be updated as frequently as it is. The red time stamps scattered across the front page of NYTimes.com tell readers exactly how long it’s been since a story was revised–four minutes ago, thirty-one minutes ago–but fail to communicate how substantive the changes were.

Was an article entirely overhauled, or were a mere two sentences added at the author’s or editor’s whim? And in the latter case, is there a reason that those two sentences had to be thrown onto the Internet immediately? Certainly, in some cases, the answer is yes. But I’d guess that there are also cases in which updates can wait–for verification, or for important context.

The casualty of this rush to break news first is transparency, and consequently, readers’ trust in that news. Later in the day on October 27, as the Ford 911 controversy developed, reporter Chris Selley tweeted a link to a Globe and Mail story (which has, like the CBC piece, had its original content completely updated) reporting that another source close to the 911 incident was disputing what the CBC’s sources claimed. “What the hell?” Selley commented. “Do media have the tape or don’t we?”

His statement highlighted a frustration, shared by many, in not knowing what or whom to believe. In the era of phone hacking, when news sources struggle more than ever to maintain their readers’ confidence, this lack of clarity needs to be taken seriously.

There are ways to fix the online updating problem. Newspapers could, for instance, implement a tab system: at every URL, a reader would be able to click through different versions of the story in different tabs, each of which would be time-stamped. The most recent version would appear on top, but if readers wanted to reference past reporting, they could simply flick through the tabs and compare versions. (Wikipedia uses a similar, but less savvy list of past versions to track changes to its user-edited articles.) This way, errors could be acknowledged and indexed in the right places, eliminating confusion over how to append corrections to online news stories when the content requiring correction is no longer part of the updated piece.

It’s unclear why news outlets don’t yet recognize the troubling lack of clarity in the way they update breaking news stories online. A spokesperson for the CBC expressed the common party line–that it’s necessary for audiences to get the most up-to-date information. A “last-updated” time stamp is transparency enough, some say, telling readers that the story has been revised. But it’s worth asking whether readers would be better served by something more than a cursory nod at transparency. If a better, clearer system can’t be implemented, then the natural question becomes whether the traditional news article is the best, or even a sufficient, way to break news on the Internet.

As coverage of events changes and is updated, newspapers need to make clear to readers how this process is unfolding. Readers no longer have hard copies of each version of a story to refer back to. If papers and online news outlets want readers to take us seriously, we need to do better.

______

Amelia Schonbek is a Toronto-based journalist.

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