The RSS feed of a prominent legal blogger recently carried an item tagged “breaking news” describing an important federal circuit court opinion. But when I followed the link from the feed to the blog to read the full item, all I got was “page not found.” I checked the time and date of the feed item and saw that it had been posted within the last hour, so I went to the blogger’s main page and scrolled all the recent items. Not there. Curious now, I went to the court’s Web site to see if the case was among its recent opinions. Sure enough, there it was. But when I read more closely, I realized that it was a republication with editorial corrections of an opinion first published a month earlier — and widely reported in the news media at the time. The blogger had been quick to publish what appeared at first glance to be an important new case, but was just as quick to discover the mistake and remove the post.
The story illustrates what I see as a growing trend among bloggers — the tendency to post items as “news” when they are not new. The problem feeds on itself because other bloggers then see the post and repeat the item, and the mistake. Pretty soon a string of bloggers are heralding something as new that is not. The blogger above caught the mistake, but I have seen many times when bloggers conveyed something as new — whether expressly or by implication — when it was not.
There is nothing wrong with blogging about newly discovered — as opposed to new — items. If I come across an interesting Web site that I’ve never seen before, I may write about it, even if it is 10 years old. In fact, I wrote the tagline of this blog, “Tracking new and intriguing Web sites for the legal profession,” to encompass new and newly discovered sites.
The problem is when a blogger misreports by portraying something as new that is not. It is a false statement and misleads the blogger’s readers. In a news organization, editors and copyeditors help catch such errors. But bloggers have no editors and should therefore be particularly diligent about the accuracy of what they write.
Here are three simple ways to avoid characterizing something as new when it is not:
- Distinguish between “new” and “newly discovered.” Be clear in your description. If you are writing about a just-launched Web site, say so. If you just came across an interesting site but have no idea how long it’s been up, say that.
- Use dates to avoid ambiguity. “When” is one of the five W’s of news reporting. Rather than write, “The court decided recently that … ,” be precise: “The court decided June 10 that … .” Rather than write, “In a statement, the lawyer said … ,” write: “In an Aug. 14 statement, the lawyer said … .”
- Check your facts. Before you post about a specific subject, take a few seconds to peform a search about it. In addition to a Web search, run quick searches using tools that search news stories and blog posts (such as Google News, Google Blogsearch or Clusty. You may find that the item you considered new was covered by another blogger six months ago.
Accuracy in reporting and writing, even among bloggers, builds reader loyalty. The more careful you are in checking your facts, the more readers will trust what you say.