Before the Internet, phone calls and checking clippings often sufficed.
So I asked Jeff Blevins, head of University of Cincinnati’s tech-savvy journalism department, how far today’s reporters must dig in pursuit of accuracy.
“This goes to the old adage that ‘a reporter is as good as his or her sources,’ ” Blevins responded. “If a reporter is going to rely exclusively on search engines, web pages, etc., at a minimum, the reporter should qualify whatever statement they make in the story ‘as reported by’ and then list the electronic sources consulted. At least that is transparent. With all of the online hoaxes and misinformation that has occurred, good reporters should maintain a healthy sense of skepticism. At best, the reporter should try to verify whatever information they’ve obtained online with an actual person.”
Perfect. Blevins linked traditional “verification” and “attribution” to demands of modern technology.
Then two old-fashion “actual person” debacles intruded.
On a recent Monday page 1, New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin in Kabul reported an Afghan father must give his 6-year-old daughter as a bride to redeem an unpaid $2,500 debt. The groom would be the lender’s son.
Tuesday, the Times said it learned an anonymous donor paid the debt weeks earlier. It wasn’t clear why Rubin didn’t know, but the Times said the child’s father failed to reveal the payment when asked again about the girl’s plight three days before the story ran.
As UC’s Blevins cautioned, “a reporter is as good as his or her sources.”
Coincidentally, Philadelphia Magazine published a sympathetic profile of a guy who claimed to be a former Marine sniper haunted by his killings. It was all lies. Credulous writer Anthony Gargano said he got too close to his subject:
“And so I sit here a fool, sickened that I unwittingly led the magazine, a group of caring, diligent editors, and our readers into John Boudreau’s troubled world and his web of deceit. I recklessly ran the red lights that arose while writing this story.”
We’ve all been lied to or misled. Tell us a self-serving story? Of course. Why else talk to a reporter? That’s why we avoid one-source stories and do our best to verify what we’re told.
Even if Rubin and Gargano sought other sources, they risked a related problem: “confirmation bias.” That’s the tendency to reject information that contradicts what we already know/believe. Gargano admits this. I don’t know about Rubin.
Both trusted their primary sources’ veracity. Otherwise, what they wrote was inexplicable professional suicide.
But back to my original question, “How much is enough” in search of accuracy in the Internet Age? What about reporters whose deadlines force them to rely on email exchanges and don’t accommodate face-to-face interviews?
Attorney Jack Greiner, who handles First Amendment issues for the Enquirer, asked, “Can I turn it around on you? What did you do back in the day? No doubt when you worked on stories that took a while to complete, you’d find yourself at a point where you would need to ‘double back’ to make sure that the information you gathered on Tuesday was still accurate on Friday. I suspect you made a phone call, and got verification. I also assume that if you were not able to get verification, you made a judgment call about whether to go with the story at that point, based on any number of factors.”
However, we also had time to check Cincinnati Bell white pages, Williams city directories, other reference volumes and clippings filed and retrieved by invaluable Enquirer librarians.
But, yes, still lacking verification, we ran credible stories, explaining what was unverified. That was scary, risking readers’ trust if the story proved inaccurate.
“I’m not sure that is really any different in the online world,” Greiner continued. “Am I missing something? If the question is whether to run a piece based solely on something that a reporter found on the Internet, I would say don’t do it. I represent some TV stations and, frankly, I’ve seen them do this more often than you think. The problem is, too frequently the original story was wrong. As to the Times piece, if the reporter relied on Internet accounts, shame on her. If she did her best to verify it, and got it wrong, that is unfortunate, but understandable.”
CURMUDGEON NOTES:• Tuesday’s Enquirer abandoned its traditional timidity and published bloody color images of victims of Boston Marathon bombings. Good. I’m sure also there were images too ghastly for the breakfast table, but the shift is welcome. The inside image of an elderly runner knocked down by the blast and framed by Boston cops running toward the explosion was another good decision. He collapsed as the blast surge hit him in the midst of other runners. We saw that on TV/online. It was one of the earliest viral images. NPR said the 78-year-old man stood and walked to the finish line, saying he hadn’t run 26 miles to quit.
• HuffingtonPost.com quickly repeated this potential calumny: “Investigators have a suspect — a Saudi Arabian national — in the horrific Boston Marathon bombings, The (New York) Post has learned. Law enforcement sources said the 20-year-old suspect was under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital.”
About the same time, Massachusetts and Boston officials were telling journalists they had no suspects.
I recall how authorities initially sought someone who looked like an Arab after the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995.
How do I know? It was all over the news media. As the current FBI website puts it, “Coming on the heels of the (first) World Trade Center bombing in New York two years earlier, the media and many Americans immediately assumed that the attack was the handiwork of Middle Eastern terrorists.”
Two white non-Arab Americans were convicted of the bombing. The only “Arab” link was murderer Timothy McVeigh’s military service in the first Iraq invasion, Desert Storm, where he won a Bronze Star. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists continued to weave elaborate links between the Oklahoma City bombers and Arabs.
• Everyone with a microphone seems to be telling us the investigation of the Boston bombings will be complex and unhurried. Many recall how long it took to abandon suspicion of security guard Richard Jewell as the Atlanta Olympics bomber. It took two years to identify Eric Rudolph as the bomber and another five to arrest him. False leads will abound and forensic evidence will be sought, collected and analyzed. Some will be helpful, some will be misleading. With so many journalists present, initial coverage largely was self-correcting. The rumor of seven more bombs or a bomb at the JFK library was quickly spiked. The story that local officials blew up a third bomb lasted a little longer. That was half-correct: They blew up a package/backpack but it was not a bomb. There were only two bombs as of this writing.
Everyone with a microphone seems to be saying the Boston bombing investigation will be complex and unhurried. Many recall how long it took to abandon suspicion of security guard Richard Jewell as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber. False leads will abound and forensic evidence will be sought, collected and analyzed. Some will be helpful, some will be misleading.
• If bombers hoped to create terror, the Boston Marathon was a smart choice: there would be lots of images from cell phones and the news media. It fits my theory of 9/11: the initial 2001 attack on the World Trade Center tower was timed to assure the news media would get full coverage of the jetliner flying into the second tower.
• Moving on from bloodshed, Rachel Richardson’s Enquirer story about dogs in the workplace was a smart story, especially part about socialization being vital to a dog fitting in.
And she pushed my nostalgia button. My first job out of college was night editing a daily paper in Italy. I bought a Belgian Shepherd (Groenendael) pup and named him Loki for the Norse trickster. His mother was a part-wolf/mountain shepherd's companion and father was an Italian ex-Army K9. With long, silky black coat, a plume of a tail, alert eyes and ears, Loki was an unbeatable chick magnet.
His socialization comprised strolling Rome, riding and waiting in my car, joining me in bars and restaurants, and lying under my desk at the Rome Daily American at night when I was the only journalist. I didn't know the breed is famous/infamous for one-person loyalty and instinct to protect: person, possessions, etc.
Loki didn’t approve of anyone approaching my desk when I was in the back shop where type was set, pages were composed and the press run. Anyone else would bring him to his feet, ears back, shoulder blades up, teeth bared . . . but silent. Even as a pup, he could be menacing. “Lupo siberiano,” or Siberian wolf, was the Roman nickname for the breed.
Night messengers who brought engraved zinc plates — photos for every edition in that ancient era of hot type and flatbed press — quickly learned to avoid the newsroom and come directly into the back shop. Loki was a force to be accommodated.
Away from the office, he’d curl up on my Sunbeam Alpine’s passenger seat and bite anyone who was silly enough to reach into the car in hopes of a quick theft.
He rarely let go before I returned and that could create Roman opera buffa. Loki’s victim typically threatened to call police about my vicious dog and — without telling Loki to let go — I offered to help by shouting for police. We never did call for police. When released, the would-be thief unfailingly walked away, cursing me for enticing him with an open sports car into what he hoped was a crime of opportunity.
When I worked days, Loki stayed home nearby. His socialization didn’t accommodate the chaos of a small, crowded newsroom with strangers coming and going.
Again, thanks for the reminder: fun, smart and god help us, mindful of Enquirer watchdog obligations.
• As anticipated here, the Cleveland Plain Dealer is following other Newhouse dailies by reducing home deliveries to three days a week: Sunday and two days to be named later. The PD says it will print seven days a week for street sales. It also plans to fire about a third of its newsroom staff. It’s a sad demise of what long was Ohio’s best daily.
• The Enquirer business section headline was “Survey: Downtown seen as more positive.” That’s also what the story said, based on what Downtown Cincinnati Inc. told the paper. The accompanying photo showed people playing in Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine. People feeling positive downtown just weren’t photogenic.
• Read Gina Kolata’s April 7 New York Times story on a new understanding of the role of red meat in heart trouble. It’s among the best story telling in a long time. It’s a complicated subject but she draws us in with researchers sitting down to sizzling sirloin breakfast “for the sake of science.” It gets even better as she explains that the science involves “a little-studied chemical that is burped out by bacteria . . . “ Talk about imagery. Send photos.
• NPR is killing its Monday-Thursday afternoon call-in show, Talk of the Nation, and we’ll all be poorer for it. Talk of the Nation involves civil, lengthy discussion of timely topics. NPR is working with Boston’s WBUR to create a program for Talk’s 2-4 p.m. time slot. NPR says member stations wanted a program more like Morning Edition and All Things Considered in the afternoon and evening. Too bad. Expect lots of canned (and cheaply produced) interviews that seem to be the promise of the new show.
• Journalists should refuse to name sources to whom they’ve promised confidentiality. The corollary, of course, is to ask first whether we’re willing to serve time for contempt of court if we reject a judge's demands that we break our word and name our source(s). In that sense, we probably don’t think it will happen to us and almost mindlessly promise confidentiality to encourage sources to talk to us.
So when there is a court confrontation, the refusenik journalist typically is cast as the hero and the judge as a mindless apparatchik and/or tool of the prosecutor. That’s too simple. Reporters are free to ask their sources to release them from their promise of confidentiality. Judges should compel testimony only when prosecutors have used every other way to identify reporters’ sources and silence could pervert justice. Judges are on the hot seat as much as reporters.
The latest unresolved contest involves Jana Winter who quoted unnamed law enforcement personnel when she reported that Aurora, Colo., gunman James Holmes sent an incriminating notebook to his psychiatrist before massacring moviegoers. FoxNews.com’s Winter said the notebook was filled with violent notes and drawings. Now that the apparently accurate information is out, I don’t see how the sources’ identities matter to a fair trial if there ever is one.
Rather, I like what Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, told the New York Times: “If you required reporters to disclose their sources every time there was a minor leak in a high profile criminal case, the jails would be filled in America with journalists.”
• London’s Daily Mail reports the auction of a log book kept by the RAF navigator whose “bouncing bomb” breached a vital German dam during World War II. The raid was portrayed in the film, The Dambusters. The Daily Mail’s story was spoiled only by a photo of the unique bomb being dropped by a twin-engine plane; Dambusters flew four-engine Lancaster heavy bombers.
• Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is loathed to degrees that W and Obama cannot imagine. Her death last week sparked national demonstrations of joy even as the government and palace hoped that her almost-state funeral in London could be protected from demonstrators. Haters danced in the street, daubed “Rust in Hell” about the Iron Lady, and sang “Ding, Dong, the Witch Is Dead.” That forced BBC to decide whether to play that song from the Wizard of Oz movie on BBC radio shows dedicated to hit songs or on news programs about Thatcher’s life and death. The song reportedly became No. 1 on iTunes before the funeral and it was headed for the top of the pop charts, pushed by Thatcher haters. At last report, BBC’s director general said only a 5-second snippet would be allowed on the main radio channel. New to his job, he pissed off everyone.
• Patrice Lumumba was the Congo’s first prime minister after Belgium granted independence to the huge, potentially wealthy and criminally unprepared colony. He was murdered not long before I began working on the Congo border in Northern Rhodesia. He already was a martyr-hero of the Left when I studied African anthropology in London.
Lumumba’s abduction, torture and murder were popularly assumed to be a CIA operation, working with Belgians, rebels in copper-rich Katanga province, and others who coveted the Congo’s mineral wealth and mines.
Now, a curious news story in London’s Telegraph says Britain’s worldwide Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) engineered Lumumba’s death. More curious is the weight it gives to a second-hand source. It quotes Lord Lea of Crondall quoting Baroness (Daphne) Park of Monmouth, who was the senior MI6 officer in the Congo then, as saying she "organised it.”
Lord Lea told the Telegraph, "It so happens that I was having a cup of tea with Daphne Park – we were colleagues from opposite sides of the Lords – a few months before she died in March 2010. She had been consul and first secretary in Leopoldville, now Kinshasa, from 1959 to 1961, which in practice (this was subsequently acknowledged) meant head of MI6 there. I mentioned the uproar surrounding Lumumba's abduction and murder, and recalled the theory that MI6 might have had something to do with it. 'We did,' she replied, 'I organised it.'"
The Telegraph said Lord Lea claimed Baroness Park reasonably was concerned that Lumumba might be a communist siding with Soviet Russia. After all, African and Asian independence leaders like Lumumba, South Africa’s Mandela and others often found their most active Cold War support mainly in Moscow and the wider Communist movement.
Initially blaming the CIA wasn’t irrational. By Lumumba’s death in 1961, the CIA had engineered the overthrow of elected governments in Iran and Guatemala and botched the Bay of Pigs invasion to topple Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
Belgium apologized in 2002 for failing to prevent Lumumba’s death. In 2006, the Telegraph said, “documents showed the CIA had plotted to assassinate him but the plot was abandoned.”
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: email@example.com