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: