Only Yesterday

I only recently stumbled across this old revealing error in the wonderful Doh, The Humanity! weblog:

It may seem like only yesterday (Wednesday, 26 July) when...

In the days of newspapers and broadcast media, it was only likely for someone to read a news article on the day it was published. If the publication were weekly or monthly, it would be reasonable to expect readers got to it within the week or month. While libraries and others might keep archived versions, it was always clear to readers of archived material that their material — and any relative dates mentioned therein — were out of date.

Even today, news is still written primarily be consumed immediately and the vast majority of readers of an article will read it while it is fresh. But, websites have made archived material live on for months and years. While this is generally a good thing, it creates all sorts of problems for people who use relative dates in articles. The point of reference — today — becomes unstable. As a result, if an entertainment reporter describes a show as happening, “next Tuesday,” it might appear to refer to any number of incorrect Tuesdays depending on when someone has stumbled across the archived version.

News companies have responded by converting relative dates into absolute ones. No doubt, this was often done by editors but today is also done by computer programs. These programs parse each news story looking for relative dates. When they find one, they compute the corresponding absolute date from the relative one, and add it into the text of the article in a parenthetical aside.

Most people, including myself, never knew or even imagined that articles were being parsed like this until the system screwed up as it did in the screenshot above. No human editor would have thought to provide an absolute date for “yesterday” in the phrase, “it may seem like only yesterday.” With this misstep, the script at work is revealed. With the mistakes, the program’s previous work — hopefully more accurate and less noticeable in old articles — becomes visible as well. Since seeing this image, I’ve noticed these date absolutefiers at work everywhere.

2 Replies to “Only Yesterday”

  1. > […] websites have made archived material live on for months and years.
    > […]
    > News companies have responded by converting relative dates into absolute ones.

    And yet they don’t go far enough. If one is going to provide a date, in an article that will live online for months or years, then why not provide the damned year in the date?

    Yet the vast majority of online article authors and editors assume that “Wednesday, 26 July” is sufficient — blithely failing to let the reader of this article know which year.

  2. Printed newspapers have a date (including year!) at the top of each page that will remove any ambiguity.  The same would work for web pages if only they would date them!  I think that is the biggest error!  I would like to see all web pages have dates.  Some do.  But most do not.  And lack of a date frequently makes it difficult for me to assess the relevance of what is on that page, be it a news story or technical information.

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