What Politico deletes from its articles without telling anyone.

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July 20 2010 3:56 PM

Politico Incorrect

What the politics Web site deletes from its articles without telling anyone.

Politico. Click image to expand.

Correction, 6:45 p.m.: Shortly after we published this piece about Politico's unacknowledged corrections, Politico contacted us to tell us that it had acknowledged almost all these corrections. (Politico appended the corrections after we asked about them but before we published our story.) To see our corrections of our mistakes about their corrections—still with us?— click here.

Last month, Politico reported on the fallout from the mess Gen. Stanley McChrystal had made for himself in his interview with Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone. A day later, the Columbia Journalism Review noticed that Politico had removed two key sentences from its article. The deleted passage had speculated that a freelance reporter such as Hastings"would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal's remarks."   Politico said the edit was made for concision. Yet it got me wondering: How often does Politico, in the din of the news cycle, make significant changes to its copy after publishing it—without telling readers?

Part of the answer, of course, depends on your definition of the word "significant." But part of it is simply math. To get the raw numbers, I wrote a series of fairly simple computer programs to monitor changes to all major Politico articles at regular intervals. (Here is more detail than you probably care to know about the programs.) After three weeks and nearly 400 articles, I have my answer: about 3 percent of the time.

By the end of last week, 217 of the 382 articles (57 percent) tracked had been changed in some way. Because the program detects even the most trivial changes, like the deletion of superfluous white space, the vast majority of these changes were unremarkable. Amid hundreds of these trivial changes, however, we found 12 noteworthy alterations. That amounts to 3.1 percent of the articles we monitored. (We've posted the list in reverse-chronological order.)

In the McChrystal meta-controversy—the one about Politico's deletions, not McChrystal's quotes—Politico deputy Managing Editor Tim Grieve said that he deleted the freelancers-vs.-beat-reporters sentences "solely for the purposes of keeping the story tight and readable" while he "substantially reworked" the article. *Politico often updates articles continuously, its editors say, as a story evolves. Sometimes, but not always, a story will receive a second timestamp (marked in red) to indicate to readers that it has been updated.

Probably the most baffling series of unacknowledged corrections visited an appreciation of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, an article Politico could have started preparing before it even launched. The initial version, published at 6:49 p.m. on June 28, included this account of Byrd's gradual decline in legislative power:

But first in 1986, Byrd surrendered the Majority Leadership, and twelve years later, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee—for the good of the Senate and his party.

The next morning, at 6:13, Politico updated this sentence, extending his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee for another decade:

But in 1986, Byrd surrendered the majority leadership, and 22 years later, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee—for the good of the Senate and his party.

In fact, Byrd stepped down as chairman of the Appropriations Committee in 2008, not 1998. But wait! At 7:51 a.m., the sentence changed again:

But at the end of 1988, Byrd surrendered the majority leadership, and 10 years later, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee—for the good of the Senate and his party.

Almost there! But Politico again miscalculated the year Byrd surrendered his Appropriations Committee chairmanship. At 9:24 a.m., the sentence made one more attempt at scaling Mount Accurate:

But at the end of 1988, Byrd surrendered the majority leadership, and 20 years later, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee—for the good of the Senate and his party.

Actually, Republicans controlled the Senate from 1981 to 1987, so Byrd had surrendered the majority leadership for those years, too—a fact the article doesn't acknowledge until 10 paragraphs later. At least we know that, whatever he did, it was always for the good of the Senate and his party.

Among the pool of articles we monitored, Politico issued just three corrections. One notified readers that Howard Kurtz did not publish the first report of a massage therapist's sexual-harassment allegations against Al Gore in the Washington Post. * One regarded the participants in a recent climate meeting. And one acknowledged that the site misidentified the author of a letter to President Obama. On the other hand, Politico failed to acknowledge changes it made on roughly a dozen articles, depending on how you count it. (See our list of deletions, corrections, and changes to judge for yourself.) After we contacted Politico with our list of unacknowledged corrections, the site's editors appended correction notices to most of the articles in question. *

The Web provides countless ways to deal with corrections—inline notices, hyperlinks, RSS feeds, and so on. Scott Rosenberg, Salon.com co-founder and director of MediaBugs.org, last week published four basic guidelines for online corrections. They're by no means the only solution, but they form a solid framework:

    • Append a note to any article that's been corrected, explaining the change;
    • Keep a list of these changes, linking to the corrected articles, at a fixed location on the site;
    • Post a brief corrections policy, with information about how readers can report errors they find;
    • Make sure that your corrections listing page and your corrections policy (whether they're on the same or different pages) are part of your site navigation—they should be accessible by one click from any page on your site.

By this standard, Politico fails on all four counts. The site has no plans to publish a corrections policy, Editor-in-Chief John Harris said: "I'm not sure there needs to be a black-and-white policy." But Politico "ought to think about" keeping a running list of corrections, and its unwritten policy. Politico's unwritten policy is to append notices to articles "where something substantive was not correct," Harris said. In many of the stories cited in the sidebar, Harris acknowledged, "there was no thought or judgment applied."  .

[Update, July 20, 11:35 p.m.: As Politico's editors also pointed out to us, many of the changes Politico made to its stories would have been permitted under Slate's own corrections policy. Under Slate's policy, we do not notify readers about minor corrections that we ourselves catch within 24 hours of publication.]

Since its launch, Politico has garnered widespread attention—and some derision—for its obsessive and detailed coverage. In many respects, it serves as a wire service for the digital age. But in the service of its "Win the Morning, Win the Afternoon, Win the Evening" strategy, Politico seems to have rewritten the old wire-service motto. It's no longer, "Get it first, but first get it right." For Politico, it's more like, "Get it first, and if you don't get it quite right, quietly change it later."

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C orrection, July 20, 6:45 p.m.: This article originally misquoted Politico Deputy Managing Editor Tim Grieve as referring to a "substantial rework" of an earlier piece. His phrase was "substantially reworked." ( Return  to the corrected sentence.) The article also stated that Politico appended corrections to six of the articles we showed them. By the time this article was published, Politico had appended corrections to most of the offending articles. ( Return  to the corrected sentence or view the updated sidebar.)   A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that Politico had originally incorrectly stated that Howard Kurtz published the first report of sexual-harassment allegations against Al Gore. Rather, Politico had incorrectly stated Kurtz published the first Washington Post report of the allegations, a mistake which Politico editors later corrected.


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