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Written media's retroactive changes is vastly irresponsible

By Katie Jenson     9/7/11 7:00pm

While keeping track of events in Libya, I printed several copies of news articles to my hard drive. I went back to find the same articles online, and discovered that the articles had changed. Not only did they change, but they also carried no reference to the fact that they had changed: no highlighted edits, and no link to a previous version.

Words were added, deleted and adjusted to create subtly new narratives with no acknowledgement that they had been used previously to craft a different narrative. The changes, if traceable at all, remain untraceable to me up to six days after publication – the only proof I have is of physically printed documents in my possession. This posed an issue for my research and poses a threat to anyone using news media as sources in general.

One of many strong arguments that I've heard against using Wikipedia as a source is the fact that it can change constantly and therefore cannot be used as an immutable source; at least Wikipedia keeps a detailed history of changes. (There are other faults with using Wikipedia as an academic source, but this has been one of my favorite ones.) From what I understand, news media is supposed to also keep track of and publish its changes; but according to my own observations on Al-Jazeera and BBC, additions, deletions, and adjustments can occur in widely-read news media without comment or acknowledgement of the action.

A significant risk of this unreferenced behavior is the invalidation of previously valid citations and references, particularly in academic publications, such as those produced by students at Rice University. In the worst of hypothetical cases, a student could be dragged before the Honor Council for quoting and citing a news article that then adjusted or deleted its own material. I, in a less likely scenario, a student might fail to cite his source and then escape unscathed by the grace of unmarked edits made by the news authors themselves.

Of the sources I am criticizing, I first noticed this behavior in an Al-Jazeera article from August 22, timestamped 16:41 (time zone unknown), titled "Pockets of resistance as rebels claim Tripoli." In this article, Gadhafi's son Saif al-Islam had been captured and the article referred to "euphoric Libyan rebels" greeted by "thousands of jubilant civilians." Foreign journalists, according to the Al-Jazeera report, "had been trapped inside the Rixos hotel" because of the "haddafi men in the area and around the area." Danger in the area was caused not by invading rebels, but by "pro-Gadhafi resistance and the presence of snipers and artillery fire." By timestamp 22:24 (again, without time zone), this information had been removed or changed. Most notably, "Gadhafi's son Saif-al Islam [sic] appears before journalists in Tripoli despite reports he was captured." Comments from the U.N. secretary-general were inserted in the middle of the article. Western journalists, instead of being "trapped," became "based" in the Rixos hotel. The language became more hesitant, more nuanced, less exuberant.

All this changed without the suggestion of having ever been changed; there was no statement that the article had been adjusted to reflect changing realities. Retroactive continuity was achieved almost seamlessly, unless a particular reader possessed hard copies of both versions of the article. This behavior may be cynically expected from a state newspaper, but it seems that such editing is not the prerogative solely of state-owned media.

The second article I am criticizing is a BBC article from Aug. 22, timestamped 12:17 ET; the second version was timestamped 17:45 ET. The immediately noticeable change was a change in title, from "Libya conflict: Fighting rages near Gadhafi compound" to "Libya conflict: Fighting for Tripoli rages on." A skeleton of similar text connected the two articles, but around that skeleton, the texts diverged significantly. The fact that "Egypt has recognised the rebels as the legitimate government" was removed from the article, replaced by a quote from Barack Obama claiming that Col. Gadhafi's 42-year rule "was coming to an end." The description of Gadhafi's zone of control was adjusted from "the streets around the Rixos hotel" to "the area further south around the Rixos Hotel." Information from the rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil claiming "that the rebels have captured Col. Gadhafi's son, Saif al-Islam" was simply deleted; a link appeared to another article about how Gadhafi's eldest son Muhammad "reportedly escaped from rebel custody hours after being detained," but comments on Saif al-Islam disappeared completely. Statements from the U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Russia, and China were also erased, and replaced by additional statements from the American president; here too, the language was toned down from the "tipping point" of the Gadhafi regime to a "fluid" situation and a call for the end of Gadhafi's regime "to reduce further bloodshed." Another line from Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the rebel leader, was relocated within the article, thus nullifying any previous quotes including the article's surrounding context. The (rebel) NTC's announcement "that it would move its centre of operations to Tripoli from Benghazi" was also removed. Finally, Gadhafi's quoted audio message decrying those "paving the way for the occupation forces to be deployed in Tripoli" was unmercifully truncated and summarized in the second version.

These changes were neither clearly recorded nor easily discoverable; they rested on top of and in between the older versions' words, subtly twisting meanings and perceptions in the text. The lack of alert to changes marks incompetence on the part of the news agencies; such incompetence pose a threat to any academic use of their articles.

In addition, these efforts to achieve retroactive continuity reveal a willingness of news agencies either to forget to note their errors or to cultivate actively an image of unchallenged perfection and accuracy. Each of these is dangerous to serious discussions of foreign affairs and serve to obscure information relevant to the proper development and application of foreign policies. Finally, they expose student writers to unknowable charges of falsification of sources, which is inadmissible in a rigorous academic context. In comparison, changes prove to be much easier to track on Wikipedia. What at one moment seems solid fact may in fact disappear the next, leaving no trace of its existence.

Katie Jenson is a Lovett College senior.

Edited on 9/11 6:37pm, fixed typo in headline.

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