Nasty Charges

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A response to accusations of bias, libel and more

In a recent post, blogger Peter Whittle made some rather nasty charges against me.

He said I accused reporter David Cochrane of being biased, that I made libelous statements about him, and that I violated the standard for most online journalism.

I live by the old proverb, The dogs bark but the caravan moves on, and was going to ignore Whittles remarks altogether. However, discussion also flared up on the comments section to this blog, where Whittle posted the full text of his remarks. So I shall pause the caravan long enough to address his accusations.

I changed the wording in my blog, removing the word suppress to describe how media decided not to report a controversial statement by the premier in the House of Assembly.

In my view, there is no question that I could use that term to describe what happened. The premier said something controversial. Soon after, the premier said he misspoke. The media who were present that day decided not to do the story. The word suppressed is fair comment, based on the accepted facts of this story.

But is also a word with great potency for journalists. I have enormous respect for Cochrane. I realized that he was insulted by that word, and understandably so. After all, I wasnt there that day to witness firsthand what transpired. So I decided to change the wording.

That said, the topic was definitely worthy of discussion. If the premier should ever announce plans, in the near or distant future, to sell off Nalcor, you can be sure that these blog posts will get reopened and parsed carefully, in an entirely different light. But even then, the worst that could be said of media was that they made a mistake they did not collude and conspire to do anything nefarious.

At no time did I suggest that Cochrane was biased. That is a bizarre and reckless accusation.

Whittle takes issue with how I made the change, saying the standard for most professional online journalism is you let the original stand but add your corrections, updates and revisions to the original.

First, who set this standard? Please forward a link to this standard.

Second, my blog should not be mistaken for online journalism. It is commentary. Subjective opinion. Sometimes supported by interviews, but still my point of view.

Finally, I disagree with this so-called standard anyway, if Whittle can produce one. I think if a word is worth correcting, or a fact worth fixing, it should be done in the original, with a note further down about what was changed and why. To leave the error unchanged but run a correction at the end of a post is silly, and unfair to anyone who is affected by the mistake.

Big-city newspapers have been known to stop the press and change the plates, when a major mistake is discovered in an important story. On TV, factual errors are often noted and corrected later in the same newscast. Either way, the situation is addressed as quickly as possible.

The Internet is different. We can go in and fix the error at its source. And that, in my view, is the best and fairest way to do it as long as changes are noted and apologies made in postscript.

Whittle uses baseless accusations of slander and bias to say other disparaging things about me. And thats fine. The last thing I will do on Remembrance Day is begrudge anyone their right to free speech.

Journalist David Newell put it nicely in his Facebook profile, saying he is thankful to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice so that, among many other things, he has the freedom to express his opinions on paper. We will remember them.

And if you would like some appropriate Remembrance Day reading, check this post from June of 2007.

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Recent comments

  • Ken
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    I read both posts and the accompanying remarks with much interest, and don't mind saying I was a bit shocked at how quickly the vitriol bubbled to the surface. It all went way over the top and tainted what started out as an interesting discussion.

    It's easy to understand a sensitivity to the suggestion anything was suppressed. Any definition I can find invests an amount of collusion to it, the prevention of something: information, political expression, personal freedom.

    That said, I did not believe at the time you meant to suggest any collusion, nor do I think you believe it now. Your decision to revisit your wording suggests as much.

    Did journalists consciously prevent the information from being aired? Hardly. A decision was made to accept a misspoken and explained comment at face value and move on. As someone who works in a daily-deadline newsroom, it's a decision I would probably have made myself. Similar decisions are made every day.

    (This doesn't mean it was ignored, or forgotten, either. You can be sure if a sale was ever seriously suggested, Hansard would be quickly revisited.)

    As for online editing etiquette, I think the only problem with replacing content after the fact is that anyone joining the discussion late will lose some of the context without the ability to see the offending phrases as they started out. I have seen other sites strike through older words and phrases and run the improved version directly after. Don't know if this engine runs that way, but it might be something to consider.