Edwards Headline Issue

For 51 seconds on Thursday afternoon, washingtonpost.com had an erroneous headline on our home page related to the John Edwards press conference. The headline said, "John Edwards Suspends White House Bid." I wanted to explain how that occurred, and discuss an error I made after we found out what had happened.

As we waited for the press conference to begin, our home page editor was planning a new home page that would be published quickly upon learning the status of the Edwards campaign after the anticipated revelation that Elizabeth Edwards's breast cancer had recurred. As is the standard process when we're trying to prepare for multiple scenarios, we plugged a headline into our home page tool that we believed to be the most likely scenario. As you can see from this screen shot of the inaccurate page, the text underneath the headline said, "Democratic presidential hopeful cuts short bid to focus on health of his wife battling cancer. Former White House hopeful drops second bid to focus on health of his wife battling cancer." That's because we were preparing for the campaign to be suspended or ended, and were waiting for the press conference for official word. Then, Edwards announced he would continue with his campaign, and we pushed out a page with the headline, "Edwards: Wife's Cancer Is Back."

A few hours later, we saw a tipster on DC FishBowl had mentioned we'd published a bad headline. At that point, we were unaware -- and, in fact, rather doubtful -- that we had published any page that included bad information. But, after seeing that report, I asked the home page team to look into it. They plowed through our home page publishing archive and found that, for reasons still unknown, the bad page was indeed published out at 12:32:20, and replaced by the page with the headline, "Edwards: Wife's Cancer Is Back" at 12:33:11, meaning the bad page was live for 51 seconds. They reported this information to me, and we sent an e-mail to the group that manages the home page tool to ask how that bad page might have been published. We still don't know why this publish occurred.

I originally wrote this off as one of those minor publishing snafus that occasionally happen in the Web business, largely because it had been up less than a minute, and wasn't a journalistic error but a technical one. Nonetheless, it was an embarrassing error, and I apologize for the fact it happened. The Post's Howard Kurtz just posted an article on this issue.

We have provided many opportunities for readers to engage in a dialogue on this site, and we want to make sure we're talking to you when we need to as well. Please feel free to comment below.

Jim Brady
Executive Editor, washingtonpost.com

By Jim Brady |  March 23, 2007; 1:05 PM ET
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I checked the Washingtonpost.com every five minutes before noon, waiting for Edwards announcement. I did not catch the wrong homepage. Thanks for holding a high standard for a mistake of 51 seconds.

Posted by: daiwanlan | March 23, 2007 01:47 PM

That would still be a journalistic error even if it was due to a technical malfunction. Transmitting information is part of the journalistic process. The idea is to keep the first amendment over top of as many things as possible, so that things like taxing newspaper racks do not become technical issues.

Posted by: Ralph | March 23, 2007 02:05 PM

So, this would be the "guns just go off" defense?

Posted by: Arlington | March 23, 2007 02:12 PM

I also regularly check the Post's homepage when news is breaking. I was a little confused until I heard someone from Politico.com had also posted wrong info.
I salute the Post for explaining to it's readers how this occurred. You are still my favorite news source.

Posted by: Hazel | March 23, 2007 02:17 PM

Were it not for the serious nature of the issue being reported on, it would be a humorously similar event to the SNL spoof that had Dana Carvey as a news anchor doing retakes for a myriad of possible scenarios involving Tom Brokaw, so as not to be 'scooped' by the competitor.

I guess that's the journalistic risk you're willing to take.

Posted by: ND | March 23, 2007 02:21 PM

Yeah this looks like a internal thing. Kurtz and Co. could just as easily say how many times the erroneous page was downloaded in 51 seconds compared to how many times the correct page is downloaded in a day. It would show that a very small number of people read the wrong headline. Why they posted the wrong headline would probably be due to confirmation from a bad source, or jumping the gun altogether.

Posted by: Ralph | March 23, 2007 02:30 PM

Seriously, officer, the gun just went off. I didn't shoot that man, why don't you believe me?

Posted by: Washington | March 23, 2007 03:01 PM

51 seconds? I was in the bathroom, so I missed it. Just be glad it wasn't Election Night.

Posted by: washingtonpoop.com | March 23, 2007 03:17 PM

It is clear that the Washington Post does, indeed, have a tool problem.

Posted by: Edwards4Prez | March 23, 2007 03:25 PM

This entire thing is being blown out of proportion. Mistakes in journalism, while unfortunate and irresponsible, happen. Isn't it ironic that The Post was quick to "jump the gun" and point the finger at The Politico, when in fact they had made the same error. Now instead of just admitting the error, they are insisting that the faulty headline was never intended to be published in the first place. That's not an apology, it's an excuse -- why bother?

Posted by: Lame-O | March 23, 2007 03:30 PM

That sucks that a little troll got into your computer and posted a false headline for 51 seconds.

Posted by: The Magical Troll Did It | March 23, 2007 03:32 PM

I happened to catch the bad headline; it didn't link to a story at that point, so when I checked back a few minutes later it had been replaced. But I thought it was funny when I read Kurtz's column in the print edition this morning, and he apparently didn't know it had happened! It didn't surprise me that a lot of other people noticed. Thanks for owning up to it.

Posted by: | March 23, 2007 03:45 PM

For 51 seconds I thought I had a new hero in Washington.

Posted by: Willem | March 23, 2007 03:58 PM

It was a journalistic error because in your haste to save seconds, you had prepared a headline that was mistakenly used. As a veteran of television news,mostly with Post-Newsweek, I recall long ago banning graphics prepared in advance for just this purpose from the control room so they couldn't get on the air. You may want to apply the same rule. Also, I swear a saw a graphic on NBC news the other night for a split second that "reported" Gonzales had resigned.

Posted by: Dick Ahles | March 23, 2007 03:59 PM

Out of a sense of fairness, shouldn't this story only have appeared on the WaPo.com home page for 51 seconds? Also, believe me, the publishing tool didn't screw up. Some tool using the tool screwed up. And now, if only the Post can start correcting all its errors of omission in its lack-of-coverage of all the Bush administration's scandals.

Posted by: johnph3 | March 23, 2007 04:18 PM

This post itself shows how web competition is forcing you to be more transparent and more accountable....What The Politico did with its error--publish a full explanation within hours--is something the Post rarely does, over much more serious errors. In this case, you had little choice, since you had already thrown stones at the competition. Why didn't Karen DeYoung publish a first-person piece in their recent serious front-page error, in which they attributed criticism to an independent inspector general that actually came three years ago from a Democratic senator?

Posted by: court house | March 23, 2007 04:32 PM

So, what has the Post really "owned up" to. Really nothing. Certainly nothing flattering. As many people have noted, their excuse is "the gun just went off." They can't even identify who was holding the gun when it went off; they can't even claim they didn't know the gun was loaded. We know it was "loaded" with erroneous versions of the story. Think there's too much emphasis on being the first with the big scoop??!

Posted by: | March 23, 2007 04:33 PM

"I originally wrote this off as one of those minor publishing snafus that occasionally happen in the Web business..."

That's exactly what it was. Your web people already feel bad about it -- don't pile on with public apologies.

Posted by: Brian | March 23, 2007 05:18 PM

I actually think bloggers should be held to a higher standard than traditional mass media, because mass media understandably rely on bloggers. http://www.paullevinson.net/archives/politicoedwards_lesson_blogs_n.phtml

Posted by: Paul Levinson | March 23, 2007 11:49 PM

This comment is not about the potential error that lasted < 1 minute you've discussed but a pattern that seems to be recurrent with articles discussing Democratic presidential candidates in the online Washington Post.

I've noticed quite a few times, in paragraphs discussed competing candidates, there were always URL links associated with other candidates, but not when the discussion turned to Edwards.

In future discussions or articles of similar nature, would suggest to either provide links to all candidates under review, or not provide any at all. Selective bias in providing links to others but not one does cast a doubt on the integrity of these articles, their authors, and the newspaper as a whole, in my opinion.

Thank you for considering this.

Posted by: Bloor West Canada | March 24, 2007 06:04 PM

While everyone may have sympathy and well wishes for the Edwards' family right now, and I do, who would actually vote for John Edwards now?

It's really, really not a good idea to elect a president when there's such a strong possibility that the first lady might not make it through the term. That would be too much of a burden on a president personally, and not good for the country to have a distracted president.

I hate to say this, but the real story is the fact that your headline is the one that should have been. What you thought was the most likely scenario is also what would have been (and most likely will eventually be) the best judgment call in the situation.

Posted by: Two cents | March 25, 2007 09:05 PM

I am a supporter, but a troubled one, of John Edwards. I agree with him and his wife that cancer victims need to live their lives as normally as possible; they do not need, nor should they, to hide in a dark corner. But while continuing one's life as much as possible is the best way to battle disease, with all medical help as well, I am not entirely convinced that continuing to run for president is the same thing as continuing one's life. I would like to be persuaded that my doubts are unjustified.

Posted by: candide | March 26, 2007 12:39 PM

An overwhelming majority of Americans oppose a pardon for Scooter Libby, despite the Washington Post repeated attempts and numerous op-eds trying to portray Libby's trial as an error. See "Trial and error" by discredited Republican attorney Victoria Toensing.

Posted by: Apology accepted. The Washington Post's influence on Americans is smaller than you think | March 29, 2007 10:42 AM

Wonderful and informative web site.I used information from that site its great.

Posted by: [5!] | March 31, 2007 05:31 AM

I reside over 400 miles from the site of the Washington Post. I have it as my 'home site'; it blinks on as my computer guides me through the relevant events of the day. In a churlish world where violence, and violators of stand- ards are coming up for a breath of fresh air everywhere, I've found your paper to be a first rate exemplar of 'good intention' and 'excellent clarification'providing the seeds necessary to interpret the news and the 'state' of the nation! Thankyou, and thankyou!

Posted by: sarahmackcallahan | April 11, 2007 12:30 PM

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