In the digital media era, a new problem has arisen. Should pieces be edited post-publication? If so, in what situations? Amid the chaos of media distrust, misinformation, censoring, and “fake news,” questions of post-publication editing ethics have arisen. Editing published articles should be approached with transparency and caution as distrust in the media is rampant.
Digital Media Consumption
Digital media consumption has skyrocketed in recent years. In a Pew Research study conducted in 2016, only 38% of Americans reported often consuming news media digitally. In another Pew study conducted in 2022, 86% reported consuming news from a digital device. In the span of just six years, digital media consumers doubled.
Pew Research conducted another study, this time concerning Americans’ trust in the media in 2022. Findings revealed 61% of Americans trust national news sources and 31% trust social media. The usage of digital devices to consume media has increased yet trust in media sources is relatively low. In the same study, 64% of Americans noted that fabricated news stories or “fake news” creates confusion about the actual facts of an event.
While post-publication editing is not the sole cause of Americans’ distrust in the news, it is likely a contributor. Before digital media production and consumption, undetected post-publication editing was impossible. Edits can be conducted digitally post-publication without the consumer’s knowledge. With the rise of digital media, distrust in the media and those who produce it has risen. Knowing this, writers and publishers should attempt to mitigate the growing distrust.
Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)
Many journals have chosen to join the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) or similar organizations. COPE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting ethical publishing. COPE does not allow editing of articles post-publication without specific criteria followed.
“Any necessary changes will be accompanied with a post-publication notice which will be permanently linked to the original article so that readers will be fully informed of any necessary changes. This can be in the form of a correction notice, an expression of concern, a retraction and in rare circumstances a removal. The purpose of this mechanism of making changes which are permanent and transparent is to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record.”(COPE)
However, most publications that are not peer-reviewed scholarly journals do not subscribe to any regulations for editing published material. Even if a publication does not wish to join a committee, the publication should introduce regulations on post-publication editing specific to them. With the increasing fear of misinformation, editing articles post-publication could be necessary in order to correct any realized mistakes. These mistakes should be corrected to protect the perceived accuracy of the publication. However, corrections should be rare, and the publication should be transparent about the edits.
When should post-publication edits be conducted?
Sometimes the information within an article is false and either slipped through the cracks while undergoing editing, or the correct information was simply confused by the writer. For example, maybe the name of an individual referenced or discussed in the article was misspelled, or a date was incorrect. Perhaps, however, a larger mistake was made, with greater repercussions, like a statement made about the wrong company that could affect their business.
In the first situation, it could be appropriate to simply change the spelling of the individual’s name. Most people would agree that in that case there is no need to make a public statement justifying the decision. However, with an incorrect piece of information with larger ramifications, it would be appropriate to notate the date of the edit and the information changed.
Occasionally, another contributor to the published article will argue that they deserve recognition for their contributions to the piece of media. An author’s name may not appear on the piece, but they greatly assisted in writing it. In this case, it would not be inappropriate to properly recognize the article’s contributors.
In extreme situations, an article may necessitate retraction. If the information is suspected to have been intentionally fabricated or misleading, the article may need to be removed. In this case, it would be appropriate to mark the article as having been retracted or as undergoing investigation. However, this should of course be reserved for extreme cases.
In a research article from “The International Journal of Press/Politics,” a statement was made regarding the importance of trust. “Trust can be understood as an asset on which news organizations capitalize to generate reputation and economic profit.” As we move to a digital world, retaining trust in the media is critical. Editing an article post-publication was unheard of before the current era of digital media. Print publications cannot simply press a button and delete or edit an article that has been released to the public. The ability to quickly edit with ease is both a blessing and a curse. While it may save a writer, editor, or publisher from a difficult situation, it also creates new problems as they navigate how and when to utilize that ability. Writers, editors, and publishers should do their best to maintain consumers’ trust as they utilize post-publication editing.