Do stealth edits jeopardise trust in media?

So, what is stealth editing?

‘Stealth edits’ are silent but substantial changes in content or tone to a piece of published media. The term is usually applied to online news outlets or other digitally published long-form content, and only where there’s no editor’s or author’s note to identify and explain the changes.

When print media reigned supreme, stealth editing was much trickier than it is today. It would have required hunting down the physical copies of the published media in order to make a retroactive change. This did happen of course (Stalin’s censorship of photographic records is a classic example of this), but in online media stealth edits are easy, instant, and if not for the valiant efforts of projects such as the Internet Archive’s The Wayback Machine, they would be totally undetectable in most cases.

Though the term ‘stealth edit’ certainly has a negative connotation implying deliberate secrecy, the most frequent silent changes to pieces are innocent enough, for example when correcting typing errors. This post will focus on ‘stealth edits’ that substantially change the tone, content, factual accuracy, or apparent authorial perspective of a published piece of media.

How common really is stealth editing?

It’s tricky to know just how common stealth edits are due to the hidden nature of the phenomenon. However, even the most respected publications have been accused of using stealth edits to hide serious editorial errors, or to dramatically change the tone of an article following an unexpected negative reaction to the piece from readers.

For instance, just last year the Washington Post silently rewrote an article on Russian hackers, changing the reported details radically in just the first few hours following publication when it became clear that the original version contained serious factual errors. After multiple outlets drew public attention to the Post’s lack of editorial acknowledgement of the alterations, the Post added an editor’s note to the piece.

In 2016, within hours of publication a New York Times piece on Bernie Sanders flipped its tone from ‘almost glowing to somewhat disparaging’ (in the words of the NYT’s own Public Editor), without transparent acknowledgement of this substantial alteration. To readers at the time it was as if the first, complimentary, version had never existed at all. Additionally, no reasoning was provided for the change, meaning that even those eagle-eyed visitors who spotted the differences were puzzled about the motivations for this.

Earlier this year the BBC was criticised for several changes to a piece about Sarah Jeong joining the editorial board of The New York Times. The addition of Jeong to the board was criticised by many due to her controversial Twitter history, including publishing tweets that the BBC originally described as racist. The article was later amended to avoid labelling the comments as racist, but simply inflammatory. In reaction, some heavily criticised the BBC for ‘stealth edits’ to the article, claiming the edits substantially changed the tone of the piece while offering no transparency for readers.

However, it’s not only news outlets that perform stealth edits. Branches of government have also silently removed, altered, or re-framed information on their public-facing websites with no explanation about the motivations. In some instances, the stealth edits appear to reveal hidden changes in policy direction and priorities that remain unexplained to the public.

For example, between 2017 and 2018, the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) changed the wording of its ‘About’ page to markedly less sympathetic language. For example, replacing the commonly-used phrase ‘justice-involved youth’ with ‘offenders’, and removing the words ‘healthy’ and ‘educated’ from the statement “…[OJJDP] envisions a nation where our children are healthy, educated, and free from crime and violence.”. Also during these alterations, OJJPD removed their public commitment to ending the use of solitary confinement for young people in the US justice system, despite various highly respected medical associations speaking outpublicly against solitary confinement, stating it is especially damaging for young people, even causing permanent harm.

Why are stealth edits a problem?

Ultimately, the ‘stealth’ aspect of these changes is the problem, creating a serious lack of transparency in online content. This undermines the public’s ability to trust these publications and rely on their content to be accurate, and their editorial practices to be upfront and honest.

If online publications are not held accountable for their content, they are ultimately less motivated to maintain a very high degree of accuracy, as their mistakes can be hidden, erased from public view in seconds.

How can readers combat this phenomenon?

As well as publications keeping themselves accountable, readers can take this into their own hands.

The Decentralised Public Library itself is an initiative of the Arweave project, which offers truly permanent archiving of any web page for a small one-time fee, utilising new blockchain-like technology. Within the DPL and Arweave teams, we use the web extension every day to permanently archive online news articles, such as this piece discussing stealth editing, now being served right from the Arweave permanent archive! This article will remain unchanged on the Arweave network, ready for anyone and everyone to access it far into the future, outside the reach of the editor’s red pen.

There are also several great sites that, although they are not permanently archived, offer comparisons across multiple versions of an online news article, tracking the changes. This can be very useful when discerning how a story develops over time, and of course in identifying stealth edits. For example, NewsDiffs, which gives a very intuitive visual representation of the differences between two versions of a news article, for example with this controversial NYT obituary.

I personally like NewsSniffer, another such site, that is monitoring changes to articles from BBC News, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent, The Washington Post and The Intercept. NewsSniffer shows a feed of all new articles from these sources, alongside a count of the versions published so far.

On NewsSniffer, additions, edits, and deletions to news articles are highlighted for easy comprehension

Naturally, many readers will already be aware of the excellent work performed by the WayBack Machine which is powered by the Internet Archive (I’m a big fan myself!). With the WayBack Machine, visitors can cycle back through previous versions of a specific URL, and submit new URLs to be captured. Sadly, however, the content of the WayBack machine isn’t permanently archived and can be subject to all the risks described in this blog post of ours, including damage to data centres, increasing maintenance costs, and outside interference or even censorship.

How can online publications improve?

The ideal solution would be adding descriptive and transparent editors’ or authors’ notes to pieces that undergo post-publication editing. This method offers readers enough information, without being too labour-intensive for the publication themselves. Several publications already practice this for ‘substantially’ altered articles, but this naturally raises the question of what counts as a ‘substantial’ change, and who makes this call? Editors do carry their own biases with them, like we all do, they’re only human after all. These biases can influence their choice to categorise a change as ‘substantial’ or not.

Here, the BBC have made an effort to identify and clarify changes to an article

Here is a good example of a descriptive editor’s note from the BBC which states, ‘Update 25 January 2017: This story has been updated to make clear that the Washington Post has since retracted the claim in its article that hackers had accessed the US national grid.’. Added at the time of the edit, the note transparently explains the reason for alterations to the article.

In short, publications could benefit from being more honest about alterations, especially ones substantial in content or tone change. This builds back readers’ trust in their content, and demonstrates a commitment to ethical and transparent journalism and knowledge exchange.

In the meantime, there are various tools, including the WayBack Machine, the Arweave web extension, NewsSniffer, and NewsDiffs, that readers themselves can employ to detect stealth edits in their go-to news and information sources. Together, we can make sure we hold those sources accountable for their content and their editorial practices..

For more information about our efforts to promote information freedom and accessibility, follow our blog on Medium, and over on Twitter!

- India Raybould for the DPL

©2019 by The Decentralised Public Library.