Comic via xkcd.  I know that this is a serious topic,
but I couldn't think of a better way to illustrate this post.
Back in March, the CEO of Tribune Company banned the word "allegedly" from on-air broadcasts at the Tribune-owned web station. It was among 119 words banned from the air because they were not conversational enough. The list is head-scratching-inducing, but "allegedly" stands out as problematic because it is shorthand for "this is not a fact". This person is not yet charged with a crime." It's an important word both for legal reasons and for ensuring that journalists don't skimp on the truth.

It's likely that it often becomes a dangerous shortcut as a reporter runs with a sexy story and the details are enough that readers stop seeing the "allegedly" and just assume the person in question actually committed the crime. But it's something.

I don't know what the New York Times' policy is on the word, but it certainly could have been used more liberally in their coverage of a fire on Staten Island. Last Thursday, a fire in Staten Island killed a family--two sons, two daughters, and  a mother. Investigators quickly determined that the victims were murdered: some of them had their throats slit, and the fire was set intentionally.

They also said that they thought that one of the sons, a 14 year old, was the murderer. That (likely false) theory emerged only hours after the fire.

But now it seems likely the investigators were wrong. Autopsies show the boy died may have died from his slit throat before the fire was started. Investigators are now focused on the mother, while not ruling out the boy's involvement.

The first story that the New York Times wrote liberally relied on variations of the phrase "investigators said" but the reporters also had already drawn the lines between good and evil.

As a single mother in a terrible job market, Leisa Jones had been doing everything she could to hold things together, working part time as a department store security guard during the holidays and, more recently, attending beauty school. Her neighbors said she had made the second-floor apartment on Staten Island where she lived with her four children — two boys and two girls — a place where good manners and good behavior mattered.
On Thursday, after firefighters had picked through the ruins of what they initially believed had been an early-morning fire that killed Ms. Jones and all four children, they uncovered evidence that was even more troubling: Ms. Jones's oldest child...had apparently started the blaze after slitting his sisters' throats.

Those first two grafs are hard to walk back from (which is why I substituted the boy's name for an ellipses). They paint the story of a mother was just a hard working single mother, the hero of everyday life, and of a son who killed his family. "Apparently" does not begin to convey the shakiness of what may end up being a completely false narrative.

The initial story was followed up with a story based on interviews with people who knew the family: the boy had a psychological assessment that recommended he switch schools (though why is unclear), a history of assault, had been bullied, and had been seen lighting paper on fire. If it seems like a leap to say that these were warning signs of homicide on this magnitude, it's because it is.

But that didn't stop the Times from jumping into full-on speculation on the same day:
In front of his home and at a Staten Island pool, he had apparently been lighting fires, flashes of heat and light that spoke, it turned out, of something more than just a fascination with flames. Inside, he burned.

The heat of that rage consumed the 14-year-old boy and left in its place, it would seem, an all-too-mature murderer.
If there's any place "allegedly" should have appeared so far, it should have been in every sentence of this story. The "it would seem" can refer to "all-too-mature" so there's nothing to say that this boy's guilt is not a given. Never mind that the writer has stated "inside, he burned" as fact.  And the boy isn't even alive to contest it.

Two days later, the Times ran this headline: Autopsies Suggest Mother, Not Son, Was Killer in Staten Island Case. The next day  the writer of a the speculation column wrote a new one saying reporters were too quick to latch on to the story. But the damage might be already done.

In the age of the Internet the allegations are there for all to see. Forever. A person could follow an outdated link and never see the new stories.

A paper cannot force a reader to read all the follow up stories, but there are ways to ensure that a reader who wanders onto the old and now outdated article knows that the boy was not a frightening murderer, and that the mother allegedly killed her family. I'm not advocating for removing the stories. They absolutely should remain on the site. But the Times has the technology to update the old stories, and they should do so. The first column only links to other stories that implicate the boy; it does not link to the back-tracking column.

As it stands, the original story does not even have a link to the updated stories. The "related" articles on the bottom are all about older fires and murders. There is no "Times Topic" page about the fire. There is no "read complete coverage here."

That's the least that they could do. If I were the editor I would go even further and offer the links to the updated story in an editor's note at the top, which notes that investigators are  no longer sure  that the 14-year-old boy killed his family.

The Times is not violating any newspaper ethics. The paper ran the story as it believed to be true and then ran follow up stories correcting the record. The Times has run editors notes before when a source lied. But this time, the unnamed firefighters and investigators implicating a dead boy didn't lie, they just made a mistake. So technically, no correction or note is needed.

But the rules of what to correct when might be based on an assumption that a reader will always end up at the most recent story. That's true if a person is picking up a paper every day. It's not true if a reader consumes news by way of social media and following links. It's not even true if you use the Times' own search engine. A search for "Staten Island" brings up the original story implicating the boy before the newer stories (though searching for "Staten Island fire" brings up the headline "Doubts Emerge About Teenager's Role in S.I. Fire" first).

The investigators are still not ruling out the boy's involvement in the crime. But  an editor's note could establish that his guilt has been called into question, and things are not as clear as the article made it seem.

A while back, I marveled at an iPad magazine that was constantly updated with the most recent data. I said that I expected the way that news was saved would change and that readers could expect that old coverage would remain up-to-date. I can't think of a better way to use that technology than to clear a person's name of a crime.

Especially a  boy who cannot clear his own name.

2 Responses to '"Investigators Said," "Allegedly," and Editor's Notes'

  1. Ashira said...
    http://writtenpyramids.blogspot.com/2010/07/investigators-said-allegedly-and.html?showComment=1280403927238#c6987267056828135220'> July 29, 2010 at 7:45 AM

    This exploration of both journalistic responsibility and current approaches to content published online is intriguing. I wonder if is a technology solution that could preserve the original article, while indicating that facts have changed, other than to list the subsequent articles in a side bar. Hmm.

    (The xkcd image got me way too excited considering the somber content of the post.)

     

  2. http://writtenpyramids.blogspot.com/2010/07/investigators-said-allegedly-and.html?showComment=1280417655998#c5459779862750812640'> July 29, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    Ashira,
    I think that you are right. I can think of two ways to preserve the article and note something new. One would be to print an editor's note on top, along the lines of "since this article was published, more information has come to light and the investigators have shifted their focus to the mother. For updated coverage click here." The other way is through hpyerlinked footnotes, or hover text at the start of an article. Slate.com uses the first for corrections and the second for random asides. I don't know how many people click on either.

     

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