Newspaper alters ‘misleading’ article after coming under pressure from online site

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  By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
 
The Scotsman is facing embarrassment after repeatedly editing an online article to apparently skew the angle on a poll showing a rise in support for a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.
 
An article authored by writer David Maddox had its headlined changed at least twice after publication, from a straight report about a rise in support for Yes to eventually claiming an expert had warned about the poll’s credibility – much to the surprise of the expert in question.

After a poll carried out by Panelbase on behalf of the Wings Over Scotland website revealed support for an independent Scotland had increased to its highest number so far at 41 per cent, the Scotsman’s first version of its report was headlined: “Scottish independence: Yes support rises in poll.”

However, several hours later the headline was altered to “Scottish independence: Doubts on poll for Yes vote” before being changed again a short time later to “Expert warns over poll showing highest Yes backing”.

The altered headlines significantly skewed the angle of the report on the basis of an expert’s view, but when asked about the story, Professor John Curtice was surprised to find his quotes were used as the basis for questioning the poll’s credibility.

In addition, the opening paragraph was also altered significantly without any indication that it had been changed from its original version.

The first version of the story began: “A new poll suggests support for independence has reached a campaign high.  The Panelbase poll commissioned by pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland puts the Yes vote on 41% and No on 46%.”

A new version of the article soon reported: “The credibility of a poll which has put the referendum campaign neck and neck had been questioned.”

But when Wings Over Scotland contacted the expert quoted in the article, the claims didn’t match up.

“We contacted Prof. Curtice, who told us he thought the headline and introduction were a reference to Alistair Darling’s comments at the end of the piece, which they clearly weren’t,” Wings reported.  “Those were preceded by a “meanwhile”, which unequivocally indicates something tangential to the headline.”

The Scotsman was then forced into a humiliating climbdown after Panelbase itself contacted the paper to demand an explanation.

By the time the body of the story reached its fourth and final version, the opening paragraph eventually settled on: “A leading polling expert has said that a poll giving the Yes campaign its highest rating ever should not be taken as evidence that polls are relentlessly moving towards a Yes vote.”

The incident isn’t the first time the Scotsman’s accuracy has been questioned over its reportage of matters related to the independence referendum.

In December 2012, Newsnet Scotland revealed that the paper had wrongly reported that the European Commission had sent a letter to the House of Lords declaring that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for EU membership.

When questioned on the story, headlined ‘Brussels: separate Scotland must apply to join EU’ a spokesman for EC President José Manuel Barroso told Newsnet that the Commission had been “very clear” that it did not comment on specific situations and confirmed the Scotsman’s story was “incorrect”.

The newspaper also came in for criticism after attacking Alex Salmond over revelations that international firm Amazon paid no corporation tax in the UK, despite power over the tax being reserved to Westminster.