Happy 2014, the year after The Year We Broke the Internet.
Last week, in a gloomy essay in Esquire, Luke O’Neil wrote that publications old and new have abandoned basic reporting—and worse, their basic concern for the truth—for the sake of speed and splash. “Big Viral, a Lovecraftian nightmare … has tightened its thousand-tentacled grip on our browsing habits with its traffic-at-all-costs mentality—veracity, newsworthiness, and relevance be damned,” he wrote.
Big Viral is real—though the exact number of its tentacles has yet to be confirmed—and though it can be used for good or evil, its destructive potential is enormous. But juicy stories, real or fake, have always traveled faster than boring facts. They’ve always rewarded their tellers. They’re just traveling faster and further than ever before.
While Big Viral can’t be stopped, it may be possible to housebreak it. Journalists have suggested several excellent strategies for correcting viral errors, and clever apps such as Retwact help users chase down bogus social-media posts.
For such tools to work, though, we tweeters and retweeters need to learn—or relearn—some respect for the facts. And for that, journalism already has a pretty good hack. We just need to repurpose it for the rest of us.
Consider the newspaper corrections column. While scandalous rumors always have and always will outrun the duller truth, the corrections column is useful as an official, standardized statement of the facts.
But the real power of the corrections column is rooted in good old shame. Journalists trained in the practice of public corrections learn that while it’s shameful to make mistakes in print, it’s even more shameful to hide them. Corrections columns serve as both punishment and partial absolution.
And corrections columns get read because—well. Don’t we all love to read about others’ mistakes once in a while? Corrections also offer hilarious contrasts in tone and content. “Mr. Vidal called William F. Buckley Jr. a crypto-Nazi, not a crypto-fascist, in a television appearance during the 1968 Democratic National Convention,” The New York Times wrote in a correction to its obituary of Gore Vidal. (This particularly lengthy correction also stated that “While Mr. Vidal frequently joked that Vice President Al Gore was his cousin, genealogists have been unable to confirm that they were related.”)
I say every publication should have a corrections column. Many digital publications append corrections to individual posts and articles, which is a good start but lacks the shaming power of the column. The column form allows readers to judge the publication’s overall reliability—and forces us writers to make prominent, appropriately embarrassing confessions.
Since we’re all self-publishers now, I’d also like to see corrections columns become a standard part of every Facebook page, every Twitter and Instagram feed, and every blog large and small (yeah, present company included). A personal corrections column should be as familiar a feature as an About page or a user bio, and sites without one should be suspect. Columns should be updated regularly, acknowledging and apologizing for the user’s various contributions to the world’s expanding Bullshit Quotient.
Like old-fashioned newspaper corrections columns, digital corrections columns wouldn’t fully atone for errors. And they wouldn’t restrain those determined to misinform. But they would give pause to the well-intentioned, and they would reassure readers that while the writer in question is imperfect, she or he cares about the facts and is willing to admit mistakes.
So in the hope of encouraging shame, schadenfreude, and the ever-elusive truth, here are the first entries in my own corrections column. I look forward to reading yours.
1. I once wrote that the Book Cliffs of Colorado and Utah comprise the longest escarpment in North America. Miffed Canadian geologists (surprisingly numerous, those) informed me that the honor belongs to the Niagara Escarpment, which runs through Ontario.
3. I told my husband that David Bowie and Mick Jagger pantomimed a sex act on stage. To the knowledge of the Internet, they have not. David Bowie and Spiders guitarist Mick Ronson, however, have. Kind of.
4. When presented with evidence contrary to my claim in #3—just Google it yourself, okay?—I argued that I was three-quarters correct (“Jagger, Ronson, what’s the difference?”). This tactic was quickly rejected as “pathetic.”
5. I often told visitors that the small town where I lived in Colorado had both the most churches and the most liquor stores per capita of any town in the state. While plausible, this has not been proven.
6. When my five-year-old asked me the difference between a meteor and a comet, I mumbled something about “rocks in the sky.” I could have done better.
7. I also told my daughter that Bilbo Baggins is a girl. However, it was my daughter’s idea, and I don’t regret it.
8. I informed many friends that Season 3 of Downton Abbey was going to be “really, really good.” In fact, it sucked.
9. I stated that a certain neighbor’s inflatable-figure Christmas display was “the worst thing ever.” Technically false.
10. That story about Pop Rocks and Little Mikey from the LIFE cereal commercial? Still not true. Sorry.
Top photo: An actual correction from the Ottawa Citizen. With apologies to any Canadians still angry about the Niagara Escarpment.