Stealth Editing & Transparency: Why Archiving Fact Checks Is Vital
The notion of “stealth editing,” in which news outlets edit online articles after publication without any notice to readers that content has been changed, leapt into the mainstream consciousness in 2016, courtesy of the New York Times. In March of that presidential election year, the Times quietly rewrote a glowing article about Bernie Sanders to give it a far more muted tone, but failed to indicate in any way that the article had been substantially rewritten. In the aftermath of intense public criticism, the Washington Post took the opportunity to note that its own policy is to append an editor’s note to any article that is substantively changed. Yet, two years later the Post found itself at the center of a stealth editing controversy of its own when it quietly rewrote a story about Russian hackers penetrating the U.S. electric grid without initially acknowledging the edits and then denying it had made certain edits.
Both newspapers steadfastly defended their stealth editing practices, with the Post going as far as to say it did not even keep track of the myriad versions of article headlines as they are “repeatedly modif[ied] and refine[d].” The Times’ public editor went further, offering that “Times editors have thus far rejected appeals to flag readers when stories are reworked, unless it’s a correction. They argue that making such edits are a routine part of digital publishing — you edit a piece, publish it, then report more or add more context, then republish it again, on through the news cycle.” Even corrections are not always acknowledged, “especially in breaking news stories where the facts are in flux. Sometimes a change is made quickly and a [notice] comes later; sometimes the [notice] never comes at all.”
Far from an isolated deviation of accepted journalistic practice, stealth editing has become the norm in digital newsrooms from small local outlets through the nation’s most prominent papers. In the web era, even our papers of record are being edited on the fly, permanently changing the concept of historical record from the immutable ledger of the past to a real-life Memory Hole. George Orwell had it right.
One of the few resources available today to track stealth editing in online journalism is the Internet Archive, which holds historical copies of more than 327 billion web pages dating back to 1996, allowing anyone to paste in a URL and see how it looked over time. The archive has become an instrumental tool in tracking how articles are rewritten over time and was featured prominently in my own chronology of the Washington Post’s Russian hackers story.
What does this have to do with fact-checking? Like news articles, fact checks can be updated over time as new information emerges or the facts of a situation become better known or even to simply add a point of clarification or context. Most fact-checking sites have a standardized way of indicating that a fact check has been updated or corrected, but none appear to offer Wikipedia-style “versioning” in which readers can go back and look at each past version of a fact check to see how it was edited over time.
This leaves the Internet Archive as the only resource to allow manual comparison of whether a given fact check has changed since its initial publication and whether those edits were acknowledged with an updated publication date or a notice of some form.
Of the fact-checking sites we monitor, all are preserved by the Internet Archive except one: Snopes. Access any Snopes fact check using the Internet Archive today and you receive the error message “Sorry. This URL has been excluded from the Wayback Machine.” This message is used by the archive to indicate a website has contacted the archive and specifically requested that historical snapshots of its site not be made available.
In the case of Snopes, it is unclear why it would seek to prevent past versions of its fact checks from being accessible, especially given that it stands alone among the fact-checking sites we monitor. The site did not respond to two separate requests for comment on why it had demanded that its site not be archived.
Even when a fact check clearly acknowledges that it has been updated and properly lists all the changes, it leaves open the question of how to ensure that past references to the fact check acknowledge that update, especially if the rating of the claim itself was changed.
Take PolitiFact’s 2016 assertion that it was “True” that “Mike Pence advocated for ‘conversion therapy.’” After acknowledging that the original Pence wording that the fact check relied on was open to interpretation, PolitiFact subsequently appended a small single-sentence Editor’s Note to the top of the fact check linking to a new version in which it changed the rating to “Half True.”
References to the fact check across PolitiFact’s site vary in whether it acknowledges the update. Its California “Half True” compilation notes that the fact check has been updated, while its Top 10 of 2017 roundup makes no mention of any kind that the rating was ever anything other than Half True. Looking beyond PolitiFact’s website, a summary of the fact check published on the Concord Monitor site still lists the claim as True, while PolitiFact’s own official Twitter and Facebook posts still boldly proclaim “TRUE: Mike Pence advocated for ‘conversion therapy.’”
Putting this all together, in a journalistic age in which stealth editing has emerged from the shadows to become the accepted norm of our papers of record, web archives have become our last line of defense to hold journalism accountable when it attempts to quietly flush its errors down the Orwellian Memory Hole. Snopes’ refusal to allow its fact checks to be archived creates a troubling lack of transparency that should be rectified by requiring all Poynter signatories to permit independent web archival of their published fact checks. Standards should also be set for how fact checkers advertise substantive changes to their fact checks, ensuring that at the very least all of their own social media posts and other notices are amended to reflect that the rating has changed.
In the end, as I wrote in 2017, “the answer to ‘fake news’ and the issue of false and misleading information in general is not to place a few elites in the role of ultimate arbitrator of truth, but rather to develop a citizenry that is data and information literate. … [In] a world in which incredible organizations like the Internet Archive are preserving the world’s online news for posterity and documenting the editing and rewriting and airbrushing that that news undergoes, news outlets must be far more transparent in how they report on the world around us, as ordinary citizens can now go back and fact-check the fact checkers.”