The meerkat photograph hoax review - which UK newspapers admitted online to being duped?
Last week pretty much every newspaper in the UK ran an agency supplied story that Meerkats in Longleat Safari Park had been caught snapping themselves on camera. At the time I wrote bemoaning the fact that the very same newspapers that were so keen to see broadcasters admit to any case of minor editing on the box, were themselves running photographs that were clearly a 'reconstruction'.
It turned out that the entire story was a hoax.
I thought it would make a good case study in how newspapers deal with corrections and clarifications online. Which newspapers go back and re-edit stories that have turned out to be unfounded?
So, I've gone to each of the major papers in turn, searched for 'meerkat' and 'meerkats', and seen what turns up.
The Daily Express still features their original story "The Meerkat Photographers". There is no correction to the story or mention that it was a hoax.
The Daily Mail's original coverage is also still online - complete with rather unweildy headline "Smile! You're on meerkat camera - warden's shock as cheeky creatures shoot their own family album"
The article has no correction attached, and has attracted three user comments about how sweet and cute the animals are.
The Mirror was virtually alone online in covering the story without reproducing any of the alleged snaps, and their story - Meerkat is picture perfect - also remains uncorrected.
The Guardian seemed to pick up on the story a day later than most other online news outlets, with their G2 "The human zoo" piece dated 7th September. This was rather more of an opinion piece from Patrick Barkham than a news piece, so probably didn't require a correction.
The Independent doesn't appear to have covered the meerkat story online - however it is difficult to be sure. Using the Independent's own search engine seems to bring back random articles that mention the word 'meerkat' once, with the lowest score first, in preference to articles from the paper that are about meerkats and score 100% on relevance.
The Sun went as far in their original article as crediting one meerkat with the photograph of another meerkat apparently taking a photograph - so it is no surprise to find that there is no correction or retraction of the story online here either.
Perhaps they just didn't have the heart to tell MercGirl that it was all untrue after she commented:
"Absolutely adorable, what a lovely bit of news for a change"
The Daily Telegraph broke ranks by publishing a story aboiut the hoax on the 9th September, which, along the way, cited my previous meerkat post as a dissenting voice about the story. They also went back and edited their original story.
"That's what you call wildlife photography" from The Times gets us back to more familiar ground - no online edit, and no follow-up exposure of the hoax.
They have at least though had the good grace to publish a user's comment on the issue:
"Sorry to disappoint but the Head Warden at Longleat has confirmed this as a hoax."
J Barker, London
Correcting old stories online is a contentious issue. Should newspapers keep the archive accurate to what they published at the time, or should the archive be constantly evolving towards a more objective 'truth' when there are mistakes?
I can think off-hand of two high profile occasions when the BBC has done it, although there are plenty of minor revisions made during the course of every day. Barbara Plett's notorious 'I wept' report about Yasser Arafat had an addition made in the footer pointing out that the report was subject to a partially upheld complaint. And N'kisi, the 'talking' parrot, got expunged from the archives altogether.
Nicholas Carr recently wrote about how newspapers injecting their inaccurate content into search engines was distorting the past - which was putting it a bit strong.
However, as this quick review shows, of the 8 major national newspapers, the majority of them seem happy to leave this demonstrably (albeit pretty unimportant) untrue story up in their online archives, still highly ranked in their search results, without a hint of a correction or a retraction.