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April 20, 2010, 2 p.m.

MediaBugs, the Knight-funded error tracker, launches its public beta

Have you ever come across an obvious error in a piece of journalism, only to feel you had no way to fix it? Then today’s your day: MediaBugs, Scott Rosenberg‘s Knight News Challenge-winning project, has just moved into its public-beta testing phase. In other words: Ladies and gentlemen, have at those errors.

MediaBugs — per the site’s FAQ, “a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed” — has been in development, and then in closed-beta mode, for the past several months. (For more background on the project, by the way, see this interview that we conducted with Rosenberg just after he won his $335,000 Knight grant last year, as well as Poynter’s nicely contextualized treatment of the launch.)

In the closed beta, “we’ve been in this very controlled part of the tests, which was mostly about fixing technical problems,” Rosenberg told me. It was about “shaking down our own bugs.”

Now, though, it’s about ceding control of the platform to MediaBugs’ intended users. “Our big challenge now, once we do this, is to just see what kinds of things people are most ‘bugged’ about,” Rosenberg says. It could be small, practical items; it could be copy errors; it could be bigger-picture, controversial ideas. “I’m actually kind of fascinated just to sit back and see, once we make this available, what people end up entering.”

If the most recent bugs reported are any indication, the “what people end up entering” could be a wide range of errors both specific and conceptual. Some of the latest:

Bug #248: Wrong figure used for SF school cutbacks
Bug #243: Redundant usage of “been” in Daily Cal
Bug #238: iPad sales figures mischaracterized (reported by Dan Gillmor)
Bug #232: Controversial remarks by S.F. police chief — what remarks?

MediaBugs has also received off-topic errors, like the “Error of Omission” cited in Bug #173: NY Times misrepresents Dartmouth health-care study? (It’s been found “off-topic” because, at this point, the platform is requesting bugs seen only in Bay Area media organizations.)

But those off-topic errors are things Rosenberg and his staff (currently consisting of associate director Mark Follman) will have to deal with as they enter into public beta. MediaBugs is a platform rather than a program; given that, its success will depend not only on whether, but also (and also more interestingly) on how people use it.

One example that emerged recently: In its listing for the play “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews,” the East Bay Express (the Oakland-area weekly) printed the wrong theater name. “On the one hand, from an editorial perspective, it’s not like something where you’d call in the lawyers and get all worried,” Rosenberg notes of the minor bug; “on the other hand, if you were going to the show that night, and went to the wrong place, you might be a little upset.”

The Express’ listings page has a comments feature — and, indeed, someone had posted a comment on that page informing the paper’s editors and readers that the show’s venue was wrong. But that hadn’t been enough to get the fix in the listing itself. “People say, ‘Don’t we have this feedback loop already with our readers, through comments?'” Rosenberg says; but, then, he notes, “the comments are a mixed bag.” Even in that relatively rare circumstance when users go out of their way to report errors in stories’ comments sections, that’s no guarantee that journalists will see/react to/fix those errors. That’s one of Rosenberg’s arguments for MediaBugs in the first place.

Another is the ability to track errors as they’re noted and dealt with — which is both useful information generally, and a means of fostering accountability among error-making news organizations. The progression of the play venue’s error-tracking, as described on its MediaBugs page, went like this:

Bug Type: Simple Factual Error

Listing for Josh Kornbluth’s show “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?” says the show is at the Jewish Community Center in SF, but actually it’s at The Jewish Theater in the Theater Artaud building.

There’s a comment pointing out the error but it’s still showing with the wrong info on the Express home page.

Supporting Information:

This is the page at the Jewish Theater’s site with the correct info:


Scott Rosenberg has contacted East Bay Express and received the following response.

East Bay Express’s managing editor said they’d correct this soon!

As of yesterday morning, Rosenberg had posted a comment on the bug’s web page. It said, simply: “This is fixed now!”

POSTED     April 20, 2010, 2 p.m.
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