Shifting Blame: Accuracy and Speed in Occupy Web Updates

As the Occupy Wall Street protests entered its second month at the beginning of October, an encounter between the police and the demonstrators on New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge led to the largest clash yet seen since the occupation began on Sept. 17.

700 people were arrested after the protestors marched onto the bridge’s roadway.

The New York Times, which had already given some coverage to the protests, as well as the accusations of police brutality stemming from video footage depicting officers spraying demonstrators in the face with pepper spray, published a story about the incident on its website.

The story provides an interesting ethical dilemma, one that occurs more and more often with newspapers whose websites provide continuing web updates as the article itself slowly becomes the complete version that will run in the next day’s paper.

Written by reporter Colin Moynihan, this particular article tells a version of the event that would soon be challenged by an updated version of the very same article.

“After allowing them onto the bridge, the police cut off and arrested dozens of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators,” the story’s lead on the New York Times website first said.

As additional reportage was added to the article, the lead changed, however. After 38 minutes, it now read: “In a tense showdown over the East River, police arrested hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators after they marched onto the bridge’s Brooklyn-based roadway.”

Decidedly different stories are being told in these two sentences. One implies the protestors were almost tricked into the situation, as though the cops manipulated the demonstrators, feigning approval of them marching onto the Brooklyn Bridge only so they could be rounded up like animals. The other implies a more direct clash between the two groups as police simply tried to keep the demonstrators from blocking off a roadway.

With this “shift in blame,” as some Occupy supporters have called it, also came an additional byline: New York Times reporter Al Baker.

Baker’s name is all over the Occupy coverage when the protesters cross paths with the police. As the Times’ Police Bureau Chief, Baker covers police stories primarily from the police perspective. While he certainly writes about crime, he’s not so much a crime reporter as he is, as his title implies, a police reporter.

Since 2005, he has covered police policy, politics and culture in the New York Police Department. His father is also a retired N.Y.P.D police lieutenant. Baker does not seem to simply be an obvious shill or mouth piece for the department, however. In the past he has written stories that look at certain incidents and N.Y.P.D practices with a critical eye as any good police reporter should.

That being said, it is true that, by the very nature of his job, he is going to be the guy that injects the cops’ view and official comments into a story. That is his job, after all. Any good story that has two sides needs both of those sides presented. Baker’s role in these Occupy stories is to help facilitate that by presenting the police perspective.

That perspective is what changed the tone of Moynihan’s original piece.

We have an article that, when first published, is very much a ground-level story. Based on protestor’s viewpoints and the reporter’s own observations, we get an account of the events. The story is then quickly published online as this is obviously a major breaking story. As is standard practice in an age of immediate online coverage, the story is technically unfinished.

By the time it runs in print the next day, new details will have been added and the story fleshed out as Baker takes a more birds-eye view, getting quotes, comments and viewpoints from official sources. As these details are added, the online coverage is updated and expanded upon.

In the case of this story, Baker’s reporting was added to the story and then this new double by-lined article replaced Moynihan’s original.

Is it ethical to print an incomplete account of an event, just because it can be updated later?

By the time an article such as this is updated, the initial story has already been out there and circulated. If the original story conveyed an idea or element inaccurately, how much damage is being done in the 40 minutes before the more complete story is posted?

Is a publication betraying a reader’s trust by offering these snippets of a complete story rather than the full, accurate version?

Are the reporters betraying their own ethical persuasion toward accuracy? It’s hard to call either of those first two reports accurate when the tone and implication have varied to such a degree.

The coverage seems to be a microcosm of the concept known as “the marketplace of ideas.”

In his book “Four Theories of the Press: The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility, and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do,” Fredrick Siebert describes the theory, writing, “let all with something to say be free to express themselves,” he writes. “The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.”

Basically, everyone has the right to say or write what they want and if some of that is wrong, the truth is going to come out anyway as more and more is written. The “false and unsound” will be overpowered by the “true and sound” and will fall away, like fat being trimmed from a piece of meat. But in the early twentieth century, journalism began eschewing the idea of working within that marketplace, said David Boeyink, a professor of media ethics at Indiana University.

As modern journalism advanced, it began adopting a code of ethics. While different publications may have developed their own set code, some principles were, and are, easy to spot across the board. Any publication’s code of ethics includes sections, among others, on truth-telling, minimizing harm and, of course, accuracy.

If the idea, then, was to get the story to be as accurate as possible, then it was hard to justify allowing false information to get out and trust that it simply gets lost in the truth, Boeyink said.

“With things changing the way they are, though, it’s interesting to think about if it could be headed back in that direction,” he said.

Within a few hours of the two versions of the story being released, somebody either with the Occupy movement or at least sympathetic toward it took two screen grabs, placing the stories side-by-side. It quickly went viral and became “exhibit A” of how New York Times coverage of Occupy Wall Street was, as one user posted on a forum, “in your face biased reporting.”

The Times has been heavily criticized by some for its initial lack of coverage, what some see as a reluctance to report on the “police brutality” and some reporters’ and columnists’ dismissive tone to the goals of the occupiers.

But here’s the thing: the story didn’t stop being updated after that second draft was posted.
“In a tense showdown above the East River, the police arrested more than 700 demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street protests who took to the roadway as they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday afternoon,” the lead eventually read.

The story, within the first four paragraphs, then went on to succinctly describe the viewpoints of both sides of the incident, changing the story once again (and adding a third byline).

This time, however, there were no screen grabs. One could argue that this reflects the readers as much as the media they consume; that a reader’s attention span is not long enough to wait for a full report nor is he invested enough to simply return to a story later in the day. Of course that’s probably a whole other story.

I’ll save that for a web update.

Originally published 12/4/2011 on UPIU.