Early in the morning last Thursday in Queens NY, Noel Polanco, an unarmed 22-year-old National Guardsman, was shot and killed in his car by an NYPD detective. Friday morning, The New York Times ran a story about this incident in their NY / Region section with the headline “Grief and Anger After Noel Polanco Is Fatally Shot by Police”. That article however, depicting the shooting, and outrage of Polanco’s family and friends, can no longer be found on the Times’ site since it has been replaced by another article depicting the NYPD officer who killed Noel Polanco as a hero, and providing few details on the community’s reaction to the shooting.
In the past there has been no easy way to track changes to online news, but a new site called NewsDiffs.org (launched in June 2012 at a Knight Mozilla MIT Hackathon) can reveal how a new story can undergo substantial revisions in the hours after first being published. The site was inspired partially by how the NY Times changed its coverage of the mass arrest of Occupy Protestors on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1, 2011. The site uses a text-comparison algorithm known as “diffing” to show changes in a story. Most changes are minor edits like spelling and grammar corrections, but occationally a story will be completely rewritten hours after it is initially posted. The Times’ story on the Noel Polanco shooting is an example of the latter.
As the story’s home page on newsdiffs shows, the original article was posted around 10:30 AM on Friday with the headline “Grief and Anger After Noel Polanco Is Fatally Shot by Police”. It opened with a depiction of Polanco’s grieving mother and then a detailed narrative of the circumstances of the shooting.
Standing on a sidewalk in Queens, Cecilia Reyes, struggled to get the words out. She pressed the palm of her hand to her mouth in an attempt to mute her sobs. She used her other hand to wipe her tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just lost my son.”
For the relatives and friends who encircled her at 1:30 a.m. on Friday – less than 24 hours after a police detective shot and killed her son, Noel Polanco, during a traffic stop on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens – her grief needed no explanation.
The story remained unchanged for the day, save for a minor spelling correction made around 11:30 AM.
Then, NewsDiffs shows that by 8:51 PM that Friday the article was almost completely rewritten. The headline was changed to take the focus off of Noel Polanco and the shooting and instead was made to be about Detective Hassan Hamdy, the “hero” officer who shot Noel Polanco, and now read:
“Portrait of Detective in Fatal Shooting: Hero, but Subject of Suits”. The article now opened with several paragraph’s about Hamdy’s record and his own chronology of events on the night of the shooting. Polanco’s shooting is not mentioned until the 13th paragraph – the 2nd page of the online version of the article. Most of the quotes from Polanco’s mother, Cecilia Reyes, were cut, and quotes from her neighbors and friends about police violence against unarmed civilians and holding the police accountable were completely edited out.
Finally at 10:28 PM on Friday, a final round of edits was made to the article, further supporting the police and downplaying Detective Hamdy’s history of abuse. The phrase “Target of Suits” in the title changed to “Subject of Suits”. A quotation was added from the NYPD claiming that Hamdy’s role in the incidents that led to civil-rights suits being brought against him was “minor” and the suits were not indicative of wrongdoing on his part. A paragraph about his 1992 service in the US Marine Corps was added before the article shifts focus to the family of the man he killed on Friday. Several paragraphs were added towards the end of the article casting aspersions on the witness’ depiction of events:
Edward Mullins, the president of the Seargents Benevolent Association, said he did not believe that road rage played a role in the shooting. “Do you know the level of stress and training that’s involved with this unit?” Mr. Mullins said. “And for officers to lose it over a road-rage incident? That doesn’t make sense. These are not rookie cops. These are experienced, veteran police officers who are used to being under heavy, stressful situations.”
Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, the union that represents Detective Hamdy and other detectives, characterized the bartender’s version of events as “absurd.”
“No police officer would shoot a person who has both hands on the steering wheel,” Mr. Palladino said Friday night. “We have gone done this road before so I ask the public to withhold their judgment until the investigation is complete.”
The article has remained unchanged since then, although the article’s URL still contains the original title. Posting the article to Facebook will also reveal the original title and summary, since Facebook stores content in a cache which is rarely updated. Times on NewsDiffs’ may not be the actual time article content was changed since articles are only checked periodically. There may have been other states for this article which were not recorded by NewsDiffs. For example, one of the article’s authors has a Twitter post from 12:43 PM on Friday showing the title “Portrait of Detective in Fatal Shooting of Noel Polanco” which is already substantially different from the original “Grief and Anger” title, but still mentioning Noel Polanco by name and not referring to Detective Hamdy as a “hero”.
Once a story on the web is posted, its URL almost never changes, so checking the URL, such as http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/06/nyregion/grief-and-anger-after-noel-polanco-is-fatally-shot-by-police.html for discrepancies between its content and the title of the story is a good indicator of articles that have been substantially altered since they were first posted.
NewsDiffs.org is not affiliated with Occupy Tech – but we do want to bring attention to this important and under-utilized tool.