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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

MediaBugs rethinks corrections by taking a page from programmers

On their weekly podcast last month, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and programmer Dave Winer blended their backgrounds to propose a new way of conceiving errors in the news media. Corrections, they argued, should be treated like software bugs — a valued element of programming, recorded systematically in bug-tracking databases. “If you help us catch a bug — if you point it out — that’s good, because it helps us make the program better,” Rosen explained.

Not a revolutionary idea, but a good one, and when Tim Windsor pointed to it here, the suggestion of a bug-tracking system for news prompted an excellent question from Daniel Bachhuber: “So…who’s going to build it?”

Now we know. Scott Rosenberg, best known as the co-founder of Salon, has been mulling this idea for a while, and last week, he received a $335,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to build MediaBugs, the first correction-tracking system for news outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Well, maybe not the first. One might argue that blogs already do a fine job at pointing out bugs in media. (That criticism of the project came up among the Knight News Challenge judges.) Many newspapers, meanwhile, already have thorough, internal systems for dealing with corrections submitted by readers. (On the other hand, some of those systems are broken.) And what if readers don’t want to visit a third-party site to deal with media mistakes, or if news organizations simply choose to ignore MediaBugs entirely? I posed those and other questions to Rosenberg at MIT last week, and you can see his responses in the video above.

Rosenberg’s site will be independent of media outlets in the Bay Area, but what if it worked like the mock-up I’ve created at right, as integral to news sites as the “email-this” button? One of the greatest impediments to an effective corrections process is that readers don’t know how to submit one. (I had an awful experience on Sunday night trying to find the Washington Post’s corrections page.) A bug-tracking system for news is a great idea, but it needs to be as easy as possible for readers and news organizations alike.

A full transcript of the video is after the jump.

Scott Rosenberg: It’s called MediaBugs.org. And the idea is to create a web site, a web service, that people in a community, in this case the San Francisco Bay Area, can bring problems and errors that they find in media coverage and post them and try to get them fixed. [...]

The inspiration of the project is from what’s called a bug tracker in an open-source project. So if you’re developing open-source software, you have this project, and you put up a public website that anyone can bring these — file these bugs. If you’re using Firefox and something breaks, you go to their web site, and you tell them about it.

And that’s sort of, you know, both the practical inspiration but also a little bit of the philosophical inspiration because, really, one of my goals it to see if we can begin to alter the mentality or the mindset of journalists a little bit away from perceiving the person who comes and tells you about an error as a gadfly or a pest, which sometimes we do. I know I have. It’s a common and understandable reaction for newsrooms, for journalists to want to kind of circle the wagons when under attack or when perceived to be under attack. And I’m hoping that we can just turn that around a little bit and show people that, you know, actually, the person who’s reporting a problem or reporting an error, filing a bug, is someone who’s helping you because you want to know about that stuff and you want to fix it. [...]

Well, certainly, the blogosphere does accomplish some of this. What doesn’t get accomplished — a couple things. One is it’s very scattered, right? You don’t have any sense of continuity. You can’t kind of aggregate the — you know, you just don’t see these things in context. But also, there is no record of the resolution. You don’t have, the concept — in a bug tracker, you have the concept of an open bug and a closed bug. An open bug is one that you’re still working or that has never been resolved. A closed one, you don’t have to think about anymore.

And I think it’s going to be really valuable to be able to do that with this kind of information and to gather data over time about, you know, which news organizations had more of these kinds of bugs filed. And it might be that, you know — which ones are resolving them. And at the end of it all, I’m hoping that we don’t — we’re not in a situation where somebody thinks, “oh, this paper had all these bugs filed. They must be doing a bad job.” But rather, “oh, this paper had all these bugs filed, and most or all of them were resolved. And that’s great. That is a good thing.” [...]

Zach Seward: There are obviously several types of bugs that journalists might not consider a bug. Certainly questions of bias and opinion.

Rosenberg: Sure.

Seward: One, in particular, might be a bug of interpretation.

Rosenberg: Yeah.

Seward: I think we might all agree that several national newspapers had a bug in their coverage of WMD leading up to the Iraq War, right?

Rosenberg: One gigantic bug with many manifestations.

Seward: I can’t imagine that someone would — is it equipped to deal with that sort of bug, or is it more, you know, individual facts?

Rosenberg: The base focus is going to start with facts. Now, there’s not — you can’t easily divide all kinds of errors and problems into one pile of facts and one pile of opinions or interpretation. It’s a spectrum. And so, inevitably, this will bleed toward — into the center of that spectrum, and that’s fine.

I don’t think — this is not going to be the place on the web to go and argue that The New York Times is a left-wing rag or Fox News is not fair and — you know, there are so many places you can do that on the web already. That’s a fine thing, but we don’t need another place to have that argument.

So, you know, something like WMD, if MediaBugs had been around when, you know, some of those stories came out, I would hope that it would be a great place to file those bugs. It’s not going to be a single report that says, “The media are screwed up on WMD.” It’s going to be, “Judy Miller‘s story today was erroneous because a, b, and c. What will the newspaper do about that?” [...]

So many of the exchanges today between people inside newsrooms and people on the web are overheated, right? There’s a lot of anger at the media, and now, today, there’s a lot of anger in the media at people on the web. And I think no single project is going to be able to change that, but I’m hopeful that we can begin to create a more civil exchange. And having this be a neutral ground is important to that.

A lot of people don’t trust their local media for one reason or another. Sometimes they’re not justified in that; sometimes they are. But they don’t even bother to go to the media outlet with their complaints. And then, a lot of — there are more and more journalists who have a kind of bunker mentality. They just don’t respond on the web because they were flamed once. And that’s understandable, but it’s a shame, I think. So, if we can begin to change that atmosphere, I’ll be very happy.

                                   
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  • http://www.wordyard.com Scott Rosenberg

    Thanks for the interview and thoughtful comments, Zach. And also for the design contribution :-) We will definitely offer some sort of easy-to-integrate widget that lets readers post bugs “in place” — that’s been part of our plan from the start, and I agree that it’s ideal. Of course the challenge here isn’t on the technical or design side, it’s in the work of explaining to media outlets why it’s in their interest to participate. That’s an effort that everyone at MediaBugs willl be heavily focused on.

  • Zachary M. Seward

    Oh great. Thanks for clearing that up, Scott, and thanks again for the interview. —Zach

  • http://mediacafe.blogspot.com Jeff Mignon

    El País (in Spain) has been offering this functionality to readers for years, on its website. I am just wondering if it has been working and if they have built any database out of it. e.g:
    http://www.elpais.com/articulo/internacional/Obama/condena/violencia/fuerzas/seguridad/iranies/manifestantes/elpepuint/20090623elpepuint_18/Tes

  • Zachary M. Seward

    Nice! Thanks for that, Jeff. If I have a moment this week, I’ll check with them on the functionality and backend. For others, here’s a screenshot with the “Corregir” button:

    —Zach

  • Dr. Shawna Murray MD

    Information is power. Bad information…is a disaster. Think aviation, law enforcement and medicine. Is there a way that this format of evolving corrections could be applied to the information base around a patient’s medical care? At present, there are too many barriers to good information capture and integration, with obvious consequences.

    Thank you for considering the issues around this application. MediBugs?

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