What gives, BBC?

I wrote about a story that was featured on the BBC news website a few days ago. The first thing I do when writing a blog post about an online story is check the published date. This is because old stories sometimes resurface, and there’s no point in writing about something, from, say 2006. The BBC story was definitely new. I can’t put my life on it, but I’m 99.99% sure I checked the date and saw nothing wrong. Sadly, I didn’t take a screenshot of the date because there was nothing to take notice of in that regard (I did take one of the body of the article and am now kicking myself that it cuts off before the top). In addition, I didn’t get the story from the ‘most read’ section, where old stories often surface, I got it from a ‘featured’ sidebar. Again, no screengrab so no supporting evidence, sadly. Grr.

Anyhoo, I emailed the British Chiropractic Association to ask for a copy of the research which supports the silly stats claimed in the article. Today I get a reply from the BCA’s PR company, Publicasity, stating that they can’t provide the research because it’s from 2006. They are sending me the original press release, though.

That’s actually sort of reasonable, in that the market research standard is three years for data. Anything older than that can be considered out of date and no longer valid. But of course I was then puzzled about why the BBC would include stats from 2006. Either the BBC writer hadn’t checked the date of something they googled, or the BCA was sending out of date info, or some other reason I can’t think of.

So I went back to the original BBC article. Guess what! The date is now showing as

Page last updated at 00:46 GMT, Tuesday, 28 November 2006

My first thought was that I’d screwed up and written about an old story. I have no evidence to the contrary. But I’m just so sure. Could it be possible that the BBC (perhaps after prompting from Publicasity?) have changed the date of the story? I don’t know. I don’t like to think that the BBC would publish a new story, realise it’s actually old, then try and change history rather than change the story. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m right but this is standard behaviour. Perhaps I’m expecting too much of the BBC.

But…the BBC news site underwent a major redesign recently. The new/old story is in the new format:

Stories on the BBC that were published in 2006 look like this:

So from that alone it looks to me that the BBC did publish this story recently. What gives?

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  1. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but being “so sure” is probably confirmation-bias in action.

    But for a sense of perspective the BBC still shouldn’t have been publishing dodgy “scientists say” stories back in…ever.

    The one they did publish fairly recently was the one about a sedentary-lifestyle leading to chances of cancer so high that we’re all basically undead revenants that shuffled off this mortal coil years ago.

  2. There is no way to know. One of the problems with dynamic content is that it can change depending on context. And sometimes content can be misleading. Perhaps the page showed a date relating to the template, and you took that as the date of the content. I am less inclined to believe in confirmation bias than a simple mistake. After all, the date is a simple factual matter that you specifically were looking for. In my case, I would attribute it more likely to bad eyesight, but that might not apply to you.

  3. @Rebecca Watson: I’m not saying it’s not an old story. It’s a really old story, from 2006. I’m saying the BBC republished it a few days ago in the their new template (i.e. as a new article). Now, whether or not, because it’s in the new template, I didn’t check the date, or whether they’ve gone back and changed the date, I don’t know, but in order for this to have happened, I don’t see any other technical explanation except the BBC republished an old article as new.

    I’m also not saying they did it on purpose – hence my question “what gives”.

  4. @davehodg: Possibly, and possibly they noticed as a result of my contacting the BCA, who knows? But no, it’s not fixed. An old article is still showing in the new format, which means it was “published” recently. Looks like it was actually re-published, as an version shows the same article in the old format, but I don’t see how the republishing could have happen accidentally, I don’t believe the BBC system works like, otherwise the older articles wouldn’t retain their old formatting.

    It’s certainly a fact that an old article is showing in the new site format, but whether that has any meaning, I don’t know. I have no evidence that the date was changed, and no explanation why an old article would show in the new format. I will contact the BBC and ask.

  5. “Never attribute to conspiracy what could be more easily explained by incompetence, stupidity or human error.” ;-)

    I believe you, Tracy. Someone probably screwed up at BBC or BCA. From some of the stories a friend of mine tells me of his newspaper days, I’d take that as the explanation long before I’d think a Skepchick made a mistake. :-D

  6. I think you’re seeing “republishing” where all that’s really happened is the BBC has made a change to their content management system so that old stories get a bit of a facelift.

    I work on similar things and this happens all the time. There’s no deception involved or intended. It’s actually more strange that the other old story you linked to hasn’t got a facelift too.

    Short answer, the BBC shouldn’t have written “Page last updated at 00:46 GMT, Tuesday, 28 November 2006” because that’s not true. The page, i.e. the HTML, is “updated” whenever someone goes there in a browser. I just updated it now by hitting Apple-R!

    The STORY, i.e. the data in the database? That’s what was last updated in 2006.

  7. I think the most likely explanation is that the BBC screwed up – whether they decided to rehash an old article on a slow news day, or just accidentally republished something and it auto-created a date, or whatever.

    We have clear evidence that the article was republished in the new format, but no explanation about why. Doesn’t really matter. All the experience shows is that the BCA were saying silly things back in 2006, and that sometimes on the BBC website, old stories appear in the new format.

    But at least it wasn’t just me. Several other sites saw this as a new story, presumably because of the new formatting. Anyone who has been reading the BBC news site for years immediately spots old stories because they are in the old style, as the archive for this one is.

  8. @PrepJoe: I can accept that as an explanation, but I see no evidence that the BBC is updating archive stories to the new format, because all 2006 stories that I’ve looked at still show as the old format. I have always assumed the BBC retain the old formatting to try and avoid this exact issue.

    But yes, the article was NOT last updated in 2006, if it was then it can’t possibly be showing in the new format. But that’s not the same crime as rehashing an old news story, so let’s hope it’s the former and not the latter.

  9. @rider: Not sure what you mean. I have given plenty of proof that the article has been updated to the 2010 format. I’ve already said that I don’t have proof the date was changed, and am happy to say that may be an error on my part. But without knowing why the BBC would republish an old article, I am not comfortable. I spent many years working in newspapers and magazines, and know first hand how news media will simply rehash an old archive story on a slow news day. I am NOT saying the BBC has done that, I really hope they have not. It’s much more likely to be a technical error – someone pressed a button somewhere. But when bloggers like me rely on news sources to be accurate, it becomes important to find out what is behind issues that render our work obsolete to avoid it happening again.

  10. Tracy:

    I understand you’re upset – your integrity gets put into question when you something like this happens. Fair enough.

    But I’m adding to the web developer professional opinion here – it’s a combination CMS glitch and PEBKAC error (or ID10T error, pick your subterfuge).

    Most likely, someone at the Beeb wanted a supplementary article for something. This got pulled. Instead of linking to the old, original article, it got pulled into whatever new CMS they have and the date stamp changed.

    As someone who has gotten frustrated with the current mode of journalism – where clicking a button makes it all too easy to post inaccurate stories (or just going the Matt Drudge route and basically posting rumors), leading the rest of us non-journalist dweebs in a healthy sense of skepticism about what IS published – I’m going to offer you a nice stiff drink, and suggest you write a nice note to the BBC expressing your concerns over their CMS.

    Not a rant or an accusation, mind you, but a note from a former journalist who sees this as a problem (showing your proof), and is suggesting they look into their CMS to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Because as a web developer, I cannot begin to tell you how bad some CMS’s are. And as a usability consultant, I firmly believe in my profession’s oft-repeated saw: You make something idiot-proof and they build a better idiot. In reproducing some errors, there is just no reason anyone with half a brain would have done what was needed to cause the error.

    Will you probably get a “aren’t you stupid for such a pretty girl” response? Oh yeah – I get them all the time. Depending on the severity, I will do anything between blowing them off to getting exceptionally formal and digging deep into the vocabulary I avoid so I don’t ostracize people. (The latter result in apologies further up the managerial chain, and occasionally some sort of refund or coupon ;) ) But the error gets fixed, saving other, less secure women from having to go through the same shit.

    And if it makes you feel any better, I had to bitch to forever before they fixed major layout errors that made it obvious they’d only tested the site in one version of IE. Being able to find an article – let alone see it’s date-stamp – would have been bliss.

  11. @Chasmosaur: Ah! Now THAT is useful. Thank you. I will have to take your word for it on the tech, but if you are saying there is a plausible technical explanation (other than the “it was a mistake” ones I’ve had) then I’m happy to settle for that.

    Contacting the BBC is a one-way process. You give them feedback, they do not reply. I’m trying anyway, though.


  12. @Tracy King:

    Well, technically, the answer is “it was a mistake”. That it’s usually a compound mistake takes entirely too long to discuss, and quite honestly, can take time to track down. And would you want to admit to your readers that you hired a doofus to publish material on your internationally-read web site?

    It’s a matter of expectation management. Obviously, they don’t have any expectations at all, so you’re going to have to just live with that. But you need to manage their expectations that you’re not just another pissed off member of the non-journalist public and have a legitimate complaint.

    A polite, well-worded letter expressing your “severe disappointment and how you find such a basic error completely unacceptable in a journalistic institution of their caliber” (or should that be calibre – this is the Beeb…) tends to get your about 20-gazillion times further than “You made a mistake, you weenies – confess!”

    Same thought, different expression thereof. Works like a charm, because you’re respecting the fact that not everyone at the Beeb is a total ID10t….and recognizing this is the season for free summer interns who have as much journalistic experience as a Capuchin Monkey ;)

    I’m not saying I’m always this reasonable – this is, however, how I keep my massive temper under control. That, and working out and Oreos (the latter necessitating more of the former).

  13. I’ve studied enough psychology to say that human memory is often treated as more reliable than it is.

    That said, I don’t know whether the BBC made a change or if this is false memory, I’m just saying the latter shouldn’t be dismissed until there is strong proof of the former.

  14. Boy, and here I thought that backing up Tracy over the BBC (of all sources!) would at least get me a pat on the head or something. ;-)

  15. Just as a random data point: I have a BBC news app on my phone. I saw this article yesterday, so it did get pushed out with the other new articles at some point recently. When I check it today, it does have the 2006 date, and it us at the bottom of the list so there is nothing to indicate it has been updated to change the date, but I have no idea what the date said when I first saw it.

  16. As someone who creates and publishes web content, this makes me cringe because I know how easy it is for something like this to happen. Sometimes just touching a web page, to correct a typo or anything, can send it to the automated feed.

    I don’t work on a news site, so at least there’s that, but this is a good example to share with my team to show the importance of being really clear when something was originally published and when it was last revised.

    But. Even though my guess is this is just a CMS glitch, the sentence you excerpted would have been just as silly and unclear in 2006.

  17. Well, the reason why it has been republished is because it has been changed.

    The BBC have been known to edit old articles, I seem to recall something about a parrot on the BBC site being dragged up onto the front page and subsequently edited.. Perhaps someone has complained about this one.

    I did a diff between the two articles:


    “They told the Radiological Society of North America that the best position in which to sit at your desk is leaning slightly back, at about 135 degrees.”


    “They told the Radiological Society of North America that the best position in which to sit at your desk is leaning back, at about 135 degrees.”

    See the difference?

    Not a technical error. A correction I suspect, as 135 degrees isn’t a slight recline.

  18. And a quick sanity check shows that the original article had the word “slightly” in 2008, so it had the original wording for at least 2 years after the original publication.

    You know, I should go into internet forensics.

  19. I read the article as well. I do not recall seeing a 2006 date. So searching caches I came up with this from the Guyana Chronicle
    “Sitting straight ‘bad for backs’ PDF Print E-mail
    Written by
    Monday, 28 June 2010 04:55
    (BBC News) Sitting up straight is not the best position for office workers, a study has suggested.”

    “BBC News – Straight-talking UK envoy’s future in doubt
    23 Jun 2010 … shared. Sitting straight ‘bad for backs’ “… not cached so I cannot actually clip the date.

    I can also find many references to the story in the past month but no actual date clip. So I think many of us are having the same problem as you.

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