One of the never-ending debates in the current media landscape is how journalism in the new media is different (and better) than the old media. The one caveat to that, however, is the viral nature of information and even news and the difficulty in correcting misinformation once it goes viral.
That issue was highlighted in the coverage of the Justice Department’s Defense of Marriage Act brief and one specific piece of information: the background of one of the brief’s authors. The story began when Andrew Sullivan described one of the brief’s authors–DOJ attorney W. Scott Simpson–as a “Bush-administration holdover” and a Mormon.
That depiction was picked up by a number of other bloggers, including John Aravosis (the go-to blogger on the DOMA brief), Dan Savage, Daily Kos, Citizen Crain, and others. The problem is that Sullivan’s information wasn’t correct.
Sullivan later published a dissent to his blogging, pointing out the mistakes, but the damage was already done. Commenters all over the blogosphere were describing the attorney as a Bush-holdover and Mormon, despite Sullivan’s semi-correction.
As the dissenter points out–and online search confirms–the lawyer is a career DOJ lawyer who has been with the government almost 20 years. His name appears on decisions dating back to 1989, which means he wasn’t a political appointee from the Bush era, instead a career employee who may have been hired during Bush I and has written briefs on behalf of the government on tons of mundane issues. An editor, or reporter, familiar with the Justice Department would know just by reading the lawyer’s title that he wasn’t a political appointee and probably not even a new hire.
One of the tenets of the “old” media is that facts are checked and double-checked, with editors looking over the reporter’s shoulder. While that system invariably has failures, it is also a system which has worked effectively in American-styled journalism. But what happens when facts aren’t double-checked? What happens when there is no editor looking over your shoulder? Suddenly an anonymous lawyer at the Justice Department becomes part of a right-wing conspiracy involving political-appointee Mormons doing Obama’s dirty work.
And how do you correct information that’s already gone viral? Do bloggers have an obligation to correct mistaken information they’ve posted about, as Towleroad did recently when it reported that Newsom had contacted the California Supreme Court to delay release of the Prop 8 decision, a story that seemed highly suspect on its face and was later denied by Newsom’s office? And how should blogger’s issue corrections?
UPDATED: For more coverage of the DOMA brief.