Our public beta of MediaBugs.org has been open for about three weeks now. We're still tinkering with our interface, coping with problems at our Internet service provider, and working on plans to increase participation. But we've already got some fascinating results from our experiment.
Here's what I think is the most interesting one so far: The first two errors that we helped get corrected were (1) a listing in the East Bay Express that provided the wrong location for a theater event; and (2) a reference in a TechCrunch story to the wrong police department. In both of these cases, the problem had already been reported to the media outlets in question -- in their own comments.
Neither error was earth-shattering, but neither was as trivial as, say, a simple typographical error. Yet the comments reporting the mistakes had sat on these websites for days (in one of the cases, over a week) without either a response or a correction. In each case, it took additional steps to get the newsroom to put fixing the error at the front of its to-do list: First, someone had to file an error report with MedisBugs (OK, in one case it was me!); then, we contacted the news outlet directly and asked for a response.
Lack of Response
I bring these particulars up not to shame the news organizations involved, each of which handled itself professionally and responsively, but rather to underscore a point that many of us still don't realize: Even though most journalists aim to get facts right and to fix things when they don't, actually getting a news organization to respond and make a correction often takes a lot more effort than it should.
There's bureaucratic inertia to be overcome. There's every newsroom's tendency to focus on tomorrow's story and not devote a lot of time and thought to yesterday's. There's the simple fact that most newsrooms today have fewer and fewer employees. And there's also, occasionally, the journalist's hope that if he ignores a complaint long enough, it might just go away.
Now, two error reports is hardly a good sample size, and we'll need more data before trying to draw any definitive conclusions. For now, what we have is some anecdotal support for what was one of the assumptions behind MediaBugs from the beginning: That the feedback loop between news producers and the public need to be made much more efficient.
Media outlets have opened the door to comments on their websites, but these discussion threads turn out not to be a very good channel for getting the outlet's attention and motivate it to fix a mistake. If, as we believe, fixing mistakes promptly and prominently is one of the keys to restoring public trust in news media, then MediaBugs can play a useful role by tightening up those feedback loops.