Another small New England daily made news at the end of the year. First it was the Newtown Bee with its professional, compassionate response to the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
More recently, the Cape Cod Times revealed how it stumbled in a way that had many journalists mumbling, “There but for the grace of God.”
That paper uncovered years of fakery by veteran reporter Karen Jeffrey. Its page 1 apology said Jeffrey quoted at least 69 apparently invented people in 34 feature stories dating back to 1998 when electronic archiving began. It may have begun earlier but paper clips are incomplete.
The editor and the publisher apologized for breaking the “implied contract between a newspaper and its readers. The paper prints the truth. Readers believe that it’s true.”
The apology qualified “truth” as any reasonable journalist would, “but at the end if the day, facts are facts. And a good newspaper holds nothing more sacred than its role to tell the truth. Always. As fully and fairly as possible.”
The execs couldn’t explain Jeffrey’s fraud or how she got away with it for so long. Jeffrey was a respected police reporter for years. Frauds seemed to begin after she lost that prestige assignment.
“Clearly we placed too much trust in a reporter and did not verify sourcing with necessary frequency.”
Wrong. Absent problems in her stories, editors accepted her work. That’s how editors everywhere treat colleagues and they had every reason to trust her. Worried editors also reviewed several other reporters’ work but found no problems with sources.
According to the paper, editors became suspicious when Jeffrey quoted a couple who said they were unaware of Veterans Day until they encountered Cape Cod celebrations.
Adults ignorant of Veterans Day? Editors wanted to know more. They couldn’t find the couple anywhere or on any database. Jeffrey didn’t help, saying she’d tossed her notes.
Jeffrey’s now-anxious editors reviewed Jeffrey’s electronically archived work. Confronted by her editors’ inability to locate scores of people she named and quoted, the paper said, Jeffrey admitted fabricating sources or giving real people false names. “She no longer works for the Cape Cod Times,” the apology said. It didn’t say if they fired her or she quit.
Some insight on Jeffrey’s alleged note-tossing: No reporter discards current notes or documents used in stories. We might not save forever, but they’re our primary sources of defense against accusations of error, misinterpretation or libel. At least once, intact notes saved my ass when falsely accused of faking a damaging quote. Another time, my notes suggested how I misunderstood the person I interviewed and botched a story. When my file cabinet drawer no longer would close, I pulled out the notes and documents and went through them starting with the oldest. I saved some for continuing stories or to fend off anticipated but delayed challenges. Recent notes and documents went into the drawer on top of them. I trashed the rest … to make room for more.
The paper is deleting Jeffrey’s “questionable stories or passages of stories” from its website. It is replacing “suspect content with a note that explains why it was removed.”
That’s how responsible news media respond.
But Cape Cod Times breast-beating doesn’t end there. Eager to rebuild trust with readers, the paper is risking erosion of trust in its newsroom. “We will be spot-checking reporting sources more frequently; choosing stories at random and calling sources to verify they exist.”
Wrong again. That’s offensive. Editors said their examination of other reporters’ work found no fakery. Such routine, periodic checking is a waste of resources. If there is reason to challenge a reporter’s source, the accuracy of a quote or the integrity of a photographer’s work, you do that immediately. There’s a limit to what any editor can detect in a reporter’s seemingly credible story or a photographer’s digital image. What Jeffrey did was, literally, unthinkable. Like plagiarism. We always risk being victims of people we trust. Ask divorce lawyers.
So if gnashing their teeth, rending their garments and pouring newsprint ashes on their heads still leaves Cape Cod Times execs feeling insufficiently repentant, they should consider whipping themselves through town streets.
Great photo op.
And no problem with identifications.
• Here’s a story for local health/medicine reporters: why is Christ Hospital reducing service at its outpatient cardiac rehab center? Recently, patients received this bizarre letter:
“In order to continue the highest level of care for our growing patient volume, we have adjusted our office hours. Effective January 2nd, 2013, (sic) hours of operation for Phase II cardiac rehabilitation will be Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 6:00 AM through 4:00 PM. Hours on Tuesday and Thursday will be 6 AM to 2:30 PM. Thank you for choosing The Christ Hospital Health Network.”
That significantly shortens the afternoon/evening hours daily for a “growing patient volume.” Didn’t anyone read this Orwellian language before it went out over an exec’s signature on hospital letterhead? To continue the highest level of care Christ will provide less, especially if patients need outpatient cardio rehab after work?
If outpatient rehab has too few clients, are cardiologists and cardiac surgeons at this aggressively marketed heart hospital urging patients to work out at the Mount Auburn facility? Aren’t these docs telling us to quit smoking, lose weight and exercise more?
It’s not a question of the quality of the care by therapists and RNs at the outpatient rehab center; if it were, it would be closed.
• The Sunday Enquirer carried a valuable column on DecColumbus Dispatch, it’s a marvel of brevity and clarity and it proves there still can be substance inside the Sunday Enquirer Local section.
• In the Good Old Days, the Enquirer would fill local pages with “evergreen” stories written before holiday slow news days. If these timeless trivia weren’t used, they could be spiked or recycled for future fallow news days. Today, evergreens apparently have been tossed on the editorial pyre while this metropolitan daily’s diminished staff is filling its shrunken news hole with staff and reader pet photos.
• God help the Enquirer photographer who brings in a horizontal (“landscape format”) photo for page A1. It won’t fit. Formulaic layout has ads and promos bannered across the top and bottom, a deep multi-column vertical photo or graphic on the left and a little bit of news beside and beneath that photo or illustration. It seems to be the same every day, regardless of events. It hardly qualifies as design. Cover pages on the Local section fare no better. My guess? The format saves thinking every day about how best to present the news (“content” or “product”) for remaining page editors at some central Midwest location.
• The Nation offers evidence-based insights into school shootings from Katherine S. Newman, coauthor of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings and dean of arts and sciences at Johns Hopkins.
For starters, teach kids it’s right, good and potentially life-saving to tell adults when other children or teenagers talk about killing, shooting, etc. Peers of potential killers are our best early warning system.
Newman’s research also rebuts NRA’s grandiose goal of an armed “guard” in every school; most schools are unlikely to become killing grounds. She wrote:
“These shootings tend to happen in small towns with no history of background violence rather than in big cities which suffer almost every other kind of brutal attack except this one. There has been only one example of a rampage school shooting in an urban setting since 1970. All the others have taken place in rural towns miles from places like New York or Chicago, or in suburbs in the Western states.”
Paducah, Ky., was one of the towns that her team studied after Goth-wannabe Michael Carneal shot five Heath High School classmates: three died, one is paralyzed and another was badly wounded.
Newman’s research reflects that of many others in describing Carneal as typical of school shooters. He was a nerdy young white male who couldn’t make lasting friendships and never fit in at school or in his football-worshiping community. He was looking for acceptance and “shooting people is drawn straight from the Hollywood playbook that equates masculinity with violence.”
Carneal talked a lot about shooting and killing but no one risked being called a snitch by alerting his parents or adults at school.
• What Were They Thinking? Gannett’s Journal News in suburban New York went online with the names and addresses of handgun permit holders in two counties in its circulation area. The paper says it will sue to force a third county to provide that information. The paper claims the list and accompanying interactive map showing permit holder’s locations are a public service. Malarkey. Horse puckey. Madness. So what if the data come from public records? So do names of men and women who claim to be victims of sex crimes. We don’t publish that. So what is a reader supposed to do with the handgun information? Cui bono?
Wingnuts spin wild fantasies about burglaries to obtain handguns from permit holders or burglars hitting homes where no one has a conceal/carry permit. My problem is different: it’s hard enough to wrest public documents from dim and self-serving officials. Decisions by the Journal News can’t help but undermine remaining public support for investigative/database reporting.
The Enquirer, Louisville Courier Journal and Indianapolis Star also are Gannett papers. I hope the Journal News' perversion of First Amendment assertiveness doesn’t become a route to Gannett corporate rings for editors and publishers. (My name will appear if the Enquirer identifies permit holders in its circulation area. I took the class, passed the exam and obtained my permit for a cover story a year after Ohio allowed counties to issue conceal/carry permits.)
• Anger over the Gannett paper’s online posting of names and addresses of handgun permit holders (above) quickly morphed into online retaliation. Some critics posted what they said was the home address and photo of Gannett corporate CEO Garcia Martore. Other Gannett execs’ home addresses have been posted and bloggers have listed home addresses and contact information for staffers at the Journal News. The paper has hired guards for its Westchester headquarters. If guards aren’t active law enforcement officers, they must have handgun permits and could be included in lists published by the paper.
• The daily Brattleboro Reformer bannered this headline across page 1 recently: “Let is snow, let is snow, let is snow.” Executive editor Tom D’Errico told romenesko.com that it was a “terrible, terrible typo. The night crew was short-staffed and we had an unusual last-minute early deadline with the storm marching in.” Later, he wrote in his blog: “I kept running over the reasons in my mind . . . of how or why a mistake like this can and does happen. But everything just sounded like an excuse. And the truth is: there is no excuse.”
• Ailing former President George H.W. Bush had one of those “greatly exaggerated” brushes with eternity recently. (That now-a-cliche expression originated in Mark Twain’s response to a reporter who confused him with ailing cousin James Ross Clemens. Snopes.com says Twain actually told the reporter, “The report of my death was an exaggeration” but added “greatly” in a manuscript.)
Back to Bush the Elder. Houston’s WBAP-AM blasted an email saying, “The Death of a President: George H. W. Bush.” Romenesko and Texas Observer reported that news director Rick Hadley blamed the error on a common practice among news media: “We get our obituaries ready to go for people who aren’t doing well.” When Bush entered a local hospital’s ICU, WBAP prepared an email blast for his death. Hadley said a problem with the email system sent the death message to about a third of the station’s subscribers. Thirty minutes later — after callers alerted the station to its misstep — WBAP quickly sent out a corrected email. Hadley said the bulletin was not read on the radio.
WBAP was typical of smart news media: It updates obits of prominent men and women to avoid being unprepared when the inevitable occurs. Unfailingly, that’s on deadlines when staff is short and sources are unavailable because of holidays or late/early hours. These advance obits have blanks for timely details: age, cause of death, where the person died and a credible confirmation of death. Then they are filed in ways meant to prevent all-too-common premature release.
That caution didn’t prevent Germany's respected news weekly Der Spiegel from mistakenly publishing Bush’s obituary in late December. AP said, “The unfinished obituary appeared on Der Spiegel's website for a few minutes before it was spotted by Internet users and removed. In it, the magazine's New York correspondent described Bush as ‘a colorless politician’ whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush.” A Der Spiegel Twitter feed said, "All newsrooms prepare obituaries for selected figures. The fact that the one for Bush senior went live was a technical mistake. Sorry!"
Years ago at UPI, we put out HOLD FOR RELEASE obituaries of leading figures worldwide. Some of our client media saved the incomplete obits to await news of the death. Others removed mention of death and often published them as space-filling weekend feature stories.
The Associated Press doesn’t send out advance obits as a practice but Dan Sewell, AP’s correspondent in Cincinnati, noted a different problem: the subject outlives the byline reporter. Last year, New York Times ombuds Margaret Sullivan wrote generally about obits after talking to obit editor Bill McDonald and touched on that problem: “Occasionally, the author of the obituary was already dead by the time the piece ran – Vincent Canby on Bob Hope and Mel Gussow on Elizabeth Taylor, for example. Mr. McDonald said that in most cases when an obit subject outlives the writer, The Times does a new piece. ‘But in select cases,’ he added, ‘we feel the obit is too fine to discard, particularly if it is by a writer who brings a certain authority to it.’ The Times assigns a live body to update the obit and, in the case of Mel Gussow, offered a note to the reader acknowledging the status of the author.”
• We’ve all won another battle to hold cops accountable. The American Civil Liberties Union sued to preempt Chicago police who object to an ACLU project on police accountability. ACLU wanted to make sure its employees wouldn’t be busted for recording officers’ words. The federal appellate court in Chicago said we all share a First Amendment right to record what police say to us. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Chicago police appeal, affirming the lower court ruling. Earlier last year, federal courts said we have a right to photograph police in public. My guess is dimmer, bolder police everywhere will continue to arrest reporters who record their words and others who photograph their actions. That’s not futile. The possibility of an arrest record — even knowing the charge will be tossed by a judge or prosecutor — can be intimidating and leave cops free of scrutiny.
• Let Congress obscure methods and goals in naming legislation but reporters should challenge any legislator who talks about “preventing” gun violence.We can’t prevent it. With some nuts among the 300-plus million living in this country and almost nonexistent mental health programs, some killers will find and use firearms on other people. We can’t prevent it. That we have hundreds of millions of firearms makes massacres even likelier. Reporters should press vote-seeking legislators on how their proposed restrictions will limit casualties from inevitable firearm violence. That brings us back to the 1994 restriction on high-capacity magazines for semi-automatic weapons. Hunting weapons and pistols for self-defense don’t need or use them.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: firstname.lastname@example.org