Post Facto Editing

In September 2002, Clay Shirky sent an essay to his mailing list titled Broadcast Institutions, Community Values. He suggested how the former could employ the latter, and in doing so, explained the difference between the two. “The order of things in broadcast is ‘filter, then publish.’ The order in communities is ‘publish, then filter.'” Furthermore, he articulated, on the Internet, “editorial judgment is applied … after the fact, not in advance.”

Thus we can call this style of publishing post facto editing. Ex post facto is Latin for “after the fact,” and the word post makes a nice pun because it also means to self-publish; after all, people post information online.

The era of post facto editing likely started with Usenet newsgroups (Michael Hauben had described it similarly in 1995), but its text-only format hardly ushered in mass readership. The introduction of the web, and its quick embrace by print publications, saw a return of classical, edit-before-publish journalism. In 1999, Andrew Leonard of Salon noted that 250 Slashdot readers had helped edit a previewed article for Jane’s Intelligence Review; he called it “Open Source Journalism.” Slate ran a similar experiment in 2001 when it assigned David Plotz to write a series on the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” where he solicited his readers for help (particularly those who may have been sources– quite literally– for his subject. His series became the book The Genius Factory.) In 2006 the term crowdsourcing came into vogue to describe the technique. Still, the formal model of crowdsourcing calls for a journalist to seek information in one channel, and publish it cleanly in another channel. The reader knows which is which. And crowdsourcing needs a crowd— a luxury not readily handy to a vast majority of bloggers.

Thus, the blogs have championed post facto editing. The blogger publishes in the twilight between fact and speculation: it’s probably mostly accurate, and anything needing correction will be later taken of. On the whole, this has been a good thing, since many intelligent people are now participating that troubled with Usenet. On the other hand, the fact that post facto editing is possible– and, on the blogosphere, quite the norm– doesn’t mean that it should be the norm for every publisher in every situation.

Let’s assume that a writer has got some ideas mostly down. These conditions generally govern their post facto editing:

  1. The writer is not harming anybody by posting incomplete information.
  2. The writer acknowledges the incomplete areas in the original post, and actually does update it.
  3. The writer is initially writing for a close community of peers.
  4. The writer has a (different) day job, and can’t easily contact sources.
  5. The writer does not have the stature to reach all necessary sources; posting first lets the sources know what/where the story will be.

On a personal note, this last point is most crucial. I’ve been able and say “I’m a researcher working on…” and reach a fair number of sources able to help. But it doesn’t get me every source. Consider my experience this past Sunday; I had started an odd exercise into trying to understand how the FCC document collection was organized. I wanted to post something for my peers, but also for a lawyer at the FCC who could help me understand it. Maybe a handful of people read the article before he got back to me with some information. It was no big deal, as I was not alleging any gross misdeeds.

Now, consider the opposite conditions:

  1. The writer may be harming someone by posting incomplete information.
  2. The writer may not necessarily bother to correct the smallest misstatements.
  3. The writer has thousands of readers.
  4. The writer is a professional and has the time to seek out sources.
  5. The writer is employed by a “name” publication, and thus has the stature to get sources to call her back.

In other words, a professional reporter sometimes does post facto editing out of laziness. The fact that amateurs do it is entirely based on circumstance. There’s been a number of times where I’ve found journalist-bloggers skipping out on simple fact-checking because no one is expecting them to.

Consider that the New York Times has been drafting its writers to double as bloggers, allowing them a somewhat looser editorial standard. A few weeks ago, Virginia Heffernan meekly passed along some Internet-based allegations about one of the presidential candidates. “Ron Paul, our Internet president, seems to have Nazi troubles, as in they’re saying he’s one of them.” Her 246-word blog post necessitated a 184-word Editor’s Note correcting several errors, and concluding, “the post should not have been published with these unverified assertions and without any response from Paul.”

Heffernan’s blog post ran the day before Christmas, and the correction ran the day after, so probably a few media watchdogs had missed it (Ron Paul’s supporters certainly didn’t.) Dan Kennedy, the popular Boston media critic, had flagged it, but demurred on making up his mind either way, figuring that Heffernan had disclaimed it enough. One of Kennedy’s readers, Larz, turned his nose up and predicted that a future victim who was less a public figure than Paul might have an actionable tort: “I’d like to hear the outcome of a libel case where the defendant plead for mitigation, as the ‘self-correcting eco-system’ had come through and saved the reputation of the plaintiff.”

When I reviewed the Cahill decision in 2005, I was chagrined that the judge had presumed that the Internet could be counted on to always allow victims of hurtful speech to respond equally. There are many exceptions to this; these are further examples of such “hit-and-run” slams. Of course, there are better examples in media forms which predate blogs. It is just the case that the post facto spirit and viral nature of blogging help facilitate harmful speech.

Clearly at a certain point, it becomes incredulous for professional writer to use the “just a blog” defense. Many of the most popular blogs– Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, TechCrunch, BoingBoing– have budgets, editorial staffs, and thousands of readers, and the blog outputs of print publications are no different. They also have much more to lose. One would think they’d be a little more careful than the average blogger.


So how do we decide when post facto is proper? Grant that the audience factor is slippery. On one hand, the z-lister with an audience of few readers outside of his immediate family may suddenly find his blog post “Slashdotted,” linked to by a mainstream source. On the other hand, a writer blogging for a publication with a print circulation of hundreds of thousands may find surprisingly few blog readers actively offering constructive criticism. Weighing the audience size is a helpful factor, but not sufficient.

So here’s a few guidelines:

First, writers should have a sense of fairness. Phrase unknowns as questions, and then consider if the question is worse then the answer. If it is, (e.g., when did X stop beating his wife?), don’t ask it publicly. More generally, writers should give some sort of a confidence indicator in or around what they’ve written.

Second, don’t just blog it. The curious nature of the weblog is that it often conflates the activity of probing with publishing. There’s no reason that they can’t be separate. My own strategies for probing information is to post incomplete ideas into other people’s blog comments (those with many more readers), and also to ask peers over email first. Others can ask an open question via a social network. A question posted to Facebook can reach many people, but it doesn’t become published (read: Google-accessible) in the way that a blog does. Broadcasting outlets have fashioned their own source networks as well. Minnesota Public Radio began work on their Public Insight Network in 2003, and they now count thousands of listeners as potential sources whom they query when writing stories.

Third, in the words of Duncan Black aka Atrios, “blogs are not ‘self-correcting’ – you actually have to, you know, make corrections.” I recalled this the other day when Steve Baker of BusinessWeek‘s BlogSpotting had saluted journalist-blogger Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post for trusting his readers to check his facts. Indeed one did. But it was tucked in the comments, and Achenbach never updated his post. This merely one case; there are many other examples over the years. Three years ago I called this the unbearable lightness of blogging — the “lightness” encourages conversation, but not automatically corrections.

One last consideration: why do such guidelines still need need airing? My longheld sense is that the DNA of blogging is quite peculiar and by no means last stop in evolution. Blogs have been sustained by a liberationist ideology– driven by retired journalists no longer constrained by editors– and always correcting oneself runs counter to that spirit. It’s more valuable to write a new post than it is to tend older posts; RSS does not contain a separate channel for updates (I pointed this out in 2005; it could be hacked, but then all of the RSS readers would have to evolve to understand it.). Nor is there a standard monitoring mechanism to report on how many posts or articles have to be updated after the fact in the first place. If post facto were the true paradigm, online newspapers would link clarifying responses directly to the articles they were referencing.

In 2002, when Shirky defined this “edit after the fact” communications, he was a doing a service by describing an emerging phenomenon. He should have spent some time considering the risks as well. So should we all.

Post Facto Editing note: I originally titled this Post Facto Reporting when I sent it out to a few people. I realized that this sounded too redundant– all reporting is “after the fact,” so I realized what I meant was Post Facto Editing. No harm done.