June 5, 2015

On Bloggers' Obligation to Correct False Material

Flickr UF-Journalism and CommunicationsI write for many reasons, but one of the big ones is that I find the act of writing often helps to clarify my thoughts in areas where they may benefit from clarification. This post is a good example in that it deals with a controversial topic about which I am conflicted. I see merit on both sides of this particular issue, and I'm not completely attached to either side in the matter. And so, I'm writing to see if my position will become clearer by doing so.

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) wrote a thought-provoking post, as he is often inclined to do, posing the question of whether a blogger has a responsibility to correct or retract information that turns out to be false. Most of the discussion sparked by this post understandably concerns the specific case to which it referred (i.e., bloggers publicly condemning Ben Radford following accusations of sexual harassment made by Karen Stollznow, accusations which now appear to have been without merit). I did not follow the details of this particular case very closely and have little interest in attempting to address it now. In their joint statement, Stollznow and Radford requested that bloggers let the matter drop. I'm perfectly content to do just that.

What I find far more interesting is the more general question about whether the bloggers who condemned Radford now owe him and/or their readers a correction, retraction, or apology of some sort. And even more interesting than that is the still more general question about a blogger's obligation to correct what turns out to be false, inaccurate, or misleading information once it is known to be false, inaccurate, or misleading.

Do These Specific Bloggers Have a Duty?

Hemant's point, as I understand it, is that the bloggers who condemned Radford were silent on the matter after the joint statement emerged.
And yet every single one of the bloggers I linked to above has been silent about this matter. Unless I missed it, they haven’t posted the joint statement. They haven’t updated old posts with a mention of it. They haven’t offered their opinion on it one way or the other. As far as they’re concerned, Radford is still a bad guy even though the statement explicitly says he didn’t do what he was accused of doing.
He appears to believe that these bloggers have an obligation to apologize to Radford or to tell the rest of us why they do not think he deserves an apology. I'm not sure I agree. I think I see his point, and I think it has merit. But I find myself with mixed feelings. While I agree completely that an apology (or a correction or a retraction) would be nice, I'm not completely convinced that it is an obligation that any of these bloggers has necessarily incurred.

Hemant notes that he has issued retractions and corrected information on his blog. He's right. I've seen him do this. I've done it too, and I suspect many other bloggers have as well. We get something wrong, and we apologize and/or correct the error. It seems like a good practice, and I think it is admirable when bloggers do it. But at the same time, I'm not sure I'd go so far as to suggest that someone who really doesn't want to do it ought to do it or that such a person necessarily owes it to the rest of us.

The most compelling argument I have heard - and Hemant mentions it in his post too - for the idea that these bloggers have incurred a duty to correct the record is that they have done harm to Radford's reputation. They participated in inflicting harm to his reputation on the basis of what turned out to be false allegations. Now that they have been informed that the allegations are false, have the incurred a duty to Radford and/or their readership? If they were journalists presenting themselves as providing objective news and reporting, I think a strong argument could be made that they might have incurred such a duty. As opinion bloggers free to write whatever they want without regard for accuracy or journalistic integrity, I'm not sure.

Do Bloggers in General Have a Duty?

On the more general question of whether a blogger has a general responsibility to his or her readers to apologize for, correct, revise, or retract content that turns out to be false or misleading in some manner, I think that the best answer is probably that it depends. It depends on what kind of blog we are talking about, the blogger's goals, the sort of reputation the blogger is pursuing, and the like.

First, there is the relatively easy case of a blogger employed by a legitimate news organization and explicitly tasked with providing news. Such a blogger probably would have the sort of duty we are talking about because it would be required by his or her employer as part of their business model. If this blogger was to write a post containing something inaccurate, he or she would be held accountable for correcting it by his or her employer.

Now consider the example of Hemant himself. The dude has created something like the CNN of atheism! Okay, that probably isn't fair to him because CNN is awful, but I mean it as a compliment. He brings news relevant to atheists from around the globe in a more effective and prolific manner than most of us can imagine. And he's been successful not just because he's relevant and prolific but because he's reasonably objective, fair, and has repeatedly demonstrated his integrity. Were he to screw something up, we know he would correct it because he's shown us that he does so. Does he have a duty to do so? I don't think so, but I'm glad that he does and see it as part of why he has the reputation he has. His duty, such as it exists, seems to me to be an internal one - he chooses it for himself.

Contrast Hemant with a run-of-the-mill rage blogger. Suppose that this person makes no claim to objectivity and provides little more than outrage and opinion. Not only do I find it difficult to argue that this person has a duty to correct misinformation, but I'd expect that misinformation is part and parcel to what he or she does. Like Hemant, there is probably no external duty like what our blogger-employed-by-a-news-organization might have. Unlike Hemant, this blogger may have chosen no internal duty. For this blogger, hits might be far more important than integrity.

Summary

I know this won't be a popular perspective, but I find myself coming down (though only slightly) on the side of concluding that the average opinion blogger (like most of us) probably does not have a duty to correct false, inaccurate, or misleading information. I think it is great when they do. I think more highly of them when they do. But I don't necessarily think that they owe it to us to do so in the sense of incurring a moral duty. I trust you will feel free to explain why I am wrong in the comments below.

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