The Washington Post published a story on Dec. 30 regarding a recent Russian hack into a Vermont utility. According to the headline and story, the assailants successfully hacked into the U.S. government power grid.
However, a fact check revealed that this was false, and the server that was hacked was not connected to the power grid.
After the article was published, the Washington Post edited this error in a timely manner–two hours later. However, the website made edits without adding any indication that the article was changed.
Because of this error, those who read the article before it was edited would have no idea that certain facts were incorrect and misleading. If they returned to reread the article, they might not even notice that anything had changed.
The situation presented a unique ethical dilemma. Should websites be clear to readers when changes in content have been made?
Certain publications, such as Forbes, criticized the Washington Post for the way they handled the situation, and referenced the concept of fake news.
Fake news, or rather unverified falsehoods presented as facts, is a concept seen primarily in particular website types, like blogs. A large ethical concern arises, though, when large, heavily read news outlets contribute to fake news.
Forbes expressed their concern regarding large media outlets participating in fake news, and said “false and misleading news can ricochet through the global news echo chamber through the pages of top tier newspapers that fail to properly verify their facts.”
If large news outlets contribute to fake news, where can the public go to find reliable facts? Although the Washington Post corrected their mistake, many believe that outlets have a duty to ensure the public knows when mistakes were made, at the beginning of the article.
Due to accountability, the Washington Post should have publicly apologized for the mistake, and added an editor’s note at the beginning of the article explaining the mistake.
Mistakes in accuracy and fact checking are large offenses, but when handled tastefully, media outlets can still retain their credibility.
In the fact-paced world of media, outlets can sometimes publish stories quickly without fact checking and verifying sources. Because of this, mistakes are somewhat inevitable. However, in order to retain the trust between journalists and the public, news outlets must own up to their mistakes, and also provide proper updates when new information breaks out.
The Washington Post has since published an Editor’s Note on the article, explaining, “An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. electric grid. Authorities say there is no indication of that so far. The computer at Burlington Electric that was hacked was not attached to the grid.”
Due to either controversy or the need to correct their mistake, the Washington Post offered this note to clarify the information to its readers. However, some believe that harm was already done with their initial decision to not add an Editor’s Note.