Can You Trust News to be Accurate?

By Marli Mesibov

Can you trust news sites to have accurate error messages?Trust in UX

Six months ago Joe Baz posed the question “How many times have you experienced [a vague, unhelpful] error message?” To counter the frustration this can cause, he proposed four simple suggestions to help sites, such as, to improve their user experience, including “write detailed error messages for each case.” Poor error messaging, and the follow up issue of problems remaining unsolved for far too long, is unfortunately not an uncommon issue for a site. Large, popular sites, dealing with a variety of possible errors, are the most frequent culprits.

A recent experience with CNN revealed a similarly vague error message:

The video timed out attempting to play. Please ensure that you do not have any Flash or JavaScript blocking plugins active.”

This error message encourages users to uninstall plugins, and if they’re not careful, this can result in new errors with other applications. In addition to the question about message specificity, (Maybe someone at CNN should read Joe’s Error Messages post!) the message also raises another interesting issue: what happens if there is a conflict in software, and how can a company deal with this? A legitimate question for software companies, to be sure.  But what if CNN already knew what the bug was… and it had nothing to do with user error?

If a site recognizes a bug on the site, why not fix it?

A brief email inquiry for help elicited a response from CNN’s Tech Support that, shockingly, acknowledged that there is an issue on the site and that no one has any intention of fixing it.


Thanks for contacting CNN! We apologize for the inconvenience.  These search hits will appear in the result, due to the design of our site, but unfortunately these videos are not available.

On December 31, 2008, CNN’s agreement with the Associated Press for use of AP content on expired and was not renewed. One result of this expiration was that CNN was required to remove any content that contained AP material. The section you are referring to was affected by this change.

Regards, Tech Support”

A Comedy of Error Messages

Let’s review. According to this email, CNN is unauthorized to show certain videos, and Tech Support acknowledges that they are aware of this… and have been for two years! For two full years the video titles have been appearing without the ability to play. Worse, users who click on the videos do not receive an accurate error message, something along the lines of:

“Sorry, this video is no longer available on the CNN site.”

Instead, users are being advised to check for plugins which might be causing the error. If a user disables plugins, what results might this have?

a.       The user accidentally disables a necessary plugin, breaking a different app on his computer

b.      The user wastes significant time attempting to locate a plugin that might be blocking JavaScript, only to discover he has none that could cause this problem

c.       The user disables a plugin and is now able to watch the video in question

Hint: The answer is not c.

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

As CNN acknowledges, “These search hits will appear in the result, due to the design of our site, but unfortunately these videos are not available.” However, after two years, it seems likely that CNN is not simply waiting a few more weeks to re-sign their agreement with Associated Press. Why not create an accurate error message, and save tech support the time and effort of responding to concerned users? Or better yet, why not remove the videos in question from the search hits?

In a business the size of CNN, the issue of “it’s not my job” becomes particularly problematic. It’s entirely possible that no one gave express permission to remove the videos; it may have been overlooked when the agreement terminated. It may be that no one considered the ramifications of the agreement termination and now no one has been authorized to take them down.  Whatever the actual situation, its almost certain that “its not my job” is the root cause.

With this in mind, on behalf of users everywhere, CNN, we grant you permission. Please, remove all videos which have been disabled due to the termination of your agreement with Associated Press.   And learn an important lesson: Simple UX changes like this could make you America’s most trusted news source… just like your tagline claims.

America’s Most Trusted News Source: Guidelines

  1. Create an error message which accurately reflects the problem. With the current error message the user risks trying to fix something that isn’t broken, potentially actually disabling something necessary.
  2. Remove the videos which are no longer available to view on their site. It really is that simple. Really.
  3. Direct users to areas they can view videos. Whether this means sending users to another site that does allow them to view the AP material or sending them to related videos available on CNN’s site, this will contribute to a good user experience. No one wants to send a user away from their own site, but if that’s the only way to give the user a good experience, users will remember it and continue to frequent your site in the future. Still worried about getting enough hits on your site? Keep in mind that any site you direct your users to may return the favor, sending their users to you for material they don’t cover.

Why aren’t clear, accurate messages the norm? From a UX perspective, creating simple and proactive solutions is a worthwhile endeavor. I’m certain every company, be they news, retail, SAAS, etc, wants to create a trustworthy user experience. Has your company encountered this problem? Where do you find the disconnect to be?

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