Category: journalism

‘Can everything be part of a story?’

No, it cannot. Sports reveal character, but we can’t truly know if whatever drove an athlete to greatness was nobility or obsession or a hidden reservoir of rage. We can’t truly know what fame does to somebody. We can’t know a person, not really, no matter how many TV interviews or magazine features or newspaper columns they are in.Oscar Pistorius

Sports, and sportswriting, offers snapshots, glimpses, hints, or façades. Some of it is real, but none of it is ever comprehensive. We think we know, and we don’t, and we have to be reminded of this over and over again, because the lights are bright, and sports can be beautiful, and it causes us to forget, and believe again. Because we want it to be true.”

     — Bruce Arthur on the shattered image of Oscar Pistorius, charged with murdering Reeva Steenkamp. His full column.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Nick J Webb

“I did not …

“… I did not say this thing did not affect the CNET brand. I said that CBS was the brand that took the blame for what happened. Not disputing there was an effect on the CNET brand as a result of what happened. Nor are we saying we will just blink our eyes and act like this never happened. Just said we can get through it. ” — CBSi President Jim Lanzone in internal message to CBSi staffers via Jim Romenesko, who has the latest on this increasingly toxic situation.

Bad Lede. Bad. Bad.

In the midst of Manti Te’o-Lance Armstrong mania Friday night, a retweet from National Post sports columnist Bruce Arthur cut through the clutter:

The link led to a journalism trainwreck written by Toronto Star columnist Rose DiManno:

Rosie DiManno lede

My first reaction, after doublechecking to make sure I read it right,

drew instant dismay:

Usually I move on but in the morning the lede was still in my head, like a bad hangover I didn’t enjoy getting. It was a bad lede, Bulwer-Lytton bad in its style but nothing to laugh at. It was especially bad for the delicate subject of a column about how a patient was sodomized on the operating table — a subject shocking enough without that intro. The column had other problems but they paled next to that lede. (I didn’t look at anything else Rosie DiManno wrote that day or her archives.) And it was the Toronto Star, a paper I took great pride in writing for as a hockey stringer but seemed to have no editors working that day. I couldn’t understand how it got published or, if it was the columnist pushing the button, how it stayed published.

I made another run at it:

More dismay via Twitter

but this time it also was picked up by Jim Romenesko, with the eye-catching headline “What the hell, Toronto Star?” and spread even more. Be sure to check out the comments.)

I didn’t reach out to the Star but after the considerable backlash from a lot of directions, including complaints to the paper, Public Editor Kathy English weighed in. She put it a lot more carefully but essentially it boils down to

“Rosie is a top columnist, we let Rosie be Rosie but if someone had noticed this before publication Friday we might have encouraged her to be slightly less Rosie.”

Those are my words. Here are some of hers:

“Taste” is always a subjective matter and questions of taste in columns and other content are often flagged to the managing editor by columnists themselves or other editors. That did not happen in this case. Had that occurred, I expect the managing editor would have urged DiManno to revise the opening to the column, which otherwise accurately reflects the direct testimony of the victim.

So what should the Star have done?

You don’t suspend a columnist for bad writing that gets published — that’s in the range of responses to plagiarism, bad reporting or bad behavior. If the columnist has the right to publish directly, I would change that — possibly with procedures in place to avoid being stonewalled by the editing process for something breaking.

This was an editorial breakdown. I would find out how it happened and look to the editor who approved it and/or the editor who set up a process that allowed it to happen. I would see if it’s part of a bad pattern and if more than the one column needs addressing. I would include copy editing, line editing and top editing in that look. If I caught the lede live — within hours of publication — I would have it updated and noted. At this point, I would add an editor’s note mentioning the concerns and linking to the public editor’s post. (The post link is there now as a related link but nothing is appended.)

Columnists need to have a voice and the best editors know how not to mess with that. They also know how to help the columnist use that voice and when to say enough is enough.

New York Post Made A Big Mistake; Mediaite, Others Made It Worse

The New York Post made a big mistake Sunday by publishing a Facebook chat “interview” with an imposter masquerading as the brother of Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. Mediaite made it worse, first hyping the report with zero skepticism, then keeping its story hyping the original NYP report up hours after the tabloid’s update with a family spokesman denying Ryan Lanza gave the interview or set up a tribute page for his brother and slain mother on Facebook.

The post was live hours after the New York Post updated its story with the spokesman's claim of a hoax.

The Mediaite version was live hours after the New York Post updated its story with the spokesman’s claim of a hoax.

When the site finally updated, it left a bad headline in place — only striking through Lanza’s name and adding a note at the top repeating the NYP statement. Someone apparently deleted an earlier tweet touting the initial Mediaite version — a tweet I did in reply is left but the original no longer shows up. Unlike the NYP, Mediaite didn’t tweet an update.

Mediaite's Lanza update

Mediaite wasn’t alone in running with a spurious story that never should have been published. Gawker replaced its post with a brief update but left up the comments about it — including those chiding it for believing the NYP at all. Yahoo News blew it by posting the story, then putting the “update” at the bottom. Gothamist did a write through with the update but the url still heralds the mistake of playing follow the leader with the Post. Huffington Post is the only one I’ve seen so far to run an editor’s note explaining the situation. No apology.

Admitting to a hoax without apologizing.

Admitting to a hoax without apologizing.

For all of its faults, starting with ignoring a field of red Facebook flags, when the Post was notified, the headline was changed and the update was tweeted. It would have been even better to run a formal correction and/or admission of error. Instead, the tabloid left a lot of the details for the Washington Post to fill in.

As for the lemmings that followed the NYP thinking that attribition to another media outlet offers some kind of pass or absolution in case a story is wrong, it doesn’t.

Reporter Kidnapped In Iraq; Translator Killed

In news suppressed by major U.S. news outlets until now, freelance reporter Jill Carroll has been kidnapped while on assignment in Iraq for the Christian Science Monitor. Her Iraqi interpreter, one of many who risk their lives as much as any journalist, was killed in the Saturday morning kidnapping. According to Editor & Publisher, the news was withheld initially at the Monitor’s request and released after it appeared in dozens of news outlets outside the U.S. I’ll deal with the futility of withholding news in the Internet Age another time. News stories: CSM | E&P. (Links via Romenesko.)

Now I join the Monitor and others in urging the release of this journalist and the protection of her colleagues and the people who make their work possible. Without them we outside Iraq have no hope of ever understanding what is going on inside a war zone that is also a home to millions. My thoughts and prayers are with Jill and those who know and love her.

From the Monitor’s statement:

"Jill’s ability to help others understand the issues
facing all groups in Iraq has been invaluable. We are urgently seeking
information about Ms. Carroll and are pursuing every avenue to secure
her release." — 
Richard Bergenheim, Editor

It would be nice if someone removed the "give a gift subscription" ad from the bottom of the statement. I don’t think anyone is trying to benefit; it just doesn’t look good.

(Disclosure: I’ve freelanced for CSM since 2004 under far less dangerous circumstances.)

Euphoria, Then Sadness

One of those nights when the name of this blog is reflected in the news. A few hours ago, I came back to my Las Vegas hotel room to drop off some things and caught the welcome news on CNN that 12 miners missing after a  West Virginia mine explosion had survived. Back from dinner and working away with CNN in the background, I was half-listening to Anderson Cooper live in West Virginia — and noting that CNN was truly live, not Memorex — when a woman and children rushed up the camera blurting out that it had all been a mistake.One man survived; the rest were confirmed dead.

It was a startling moment in so many ways. With no way of confirming at that moment what he — and we — were being told, the story continued nearly unchecked. In a way, it was a replay of the way the news of survival was delivered hours earlier — a variation of the telegraph game run horribly amuck. This time, the news was right — one man survived and had been rushed to the hospital; the rest, in a horrible reversal, would not be coming home.

As I type, angry family members are being interviewed by Miles O’Brien. For now, the anger is aimed at the company, particularly the top exec. Earlier, during a press conference witjh Gov. Joe Manchini, reporters tried to figure out how much blame he should bear — some used a comment he made as a confirmation of the survival. But it wasn’t the governor who reported the survival story.

At some point, the media covering this story needs to look inward and consider the contribution journalists made to the spread of inaccurate reports. We all make mistakes (I made one Tueaday that’s still driving me crazy); most of us, if not all, likely have repeated inaccurate information because it came from a reliable source.  But we can — and should — take responsibility for what we report and how we report it.

Addendum: I’m not suggesting this coverage was based
on reliable sources; the sourcing and decision-making is unclear at
this point. The AP’s reporting certainly contributed to some of the coverage but that doesn’t explain why so many journalists at what had become a major media event went with what appears to be hearsay instead of waiting for official confirmation.  The live coverage of the euphoric scene had its own power. What would I or any of you have done in their place? The temptation to believe in miracles can’t be underestimated. Neither can group-think. I hope I would have been skeptical.

Sloppy journalism

Memo to CNN and any other news outlet or journalist tempted to repeat "details" without checking:

A reference this morning to Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’ volunteer work for a group called Exodus Ministries left some people — including journalists — leaping to conclusions and assumptions. A few minutes ago,  CNN anchor Kyra Phillips said she heard on NPR and from "a number of people" that Miers was involved with the Exodus Ministries that says gay people can go straight with the help of Jesus. Even when her guest, constitutional law expert David Oblon, suggested she was talking about the wrong group — that Miers volunteered for a similarly named group in Dallas helping ex-convicts — she insisted on talking about how this might affect rulings on gay issues and Oblon actually started to talk about how "if it’s true that she was supporting the ex-gays, well, that tells you a little bit about her."

Actually, the whole thing tells me a lot more about the people making these statements. If you don’t know, don’t speculate. Find the answer. Don’t assume something you hear is gospel. Check it out. In this case, while they were babbling, I managed to find the right web site for Orlando-based Exodus International, where a press release clearly states:

"Harriet Miers, nominee
for the U.S. Supreme Court, served on the board of directors of Exodus Ministry in East Dallas, an organization that assists ex-offenders in finding jobs and places to live. The organization is in not
related to Exodus International, the world’s largest educational and informational outreach dealing with homosexuality
." (The emphasis is theirs, not mine.)

This is not rocket science. I’ve been part of covering the nomination of a justice — Clarence Thomas worked in Missouri and had strong ties here, which made me part of the Time team looking into his background. If we’d gone around mentioning every piece of information we heard or came across without checking it a lot of misinformation would have been in the public record.

The ability to send words around the globe instantly via digits or satellite doesn’t mean you have to cut corners. If anything, it means you should be even more careful.

Coda: Find out more about the Exodus Ministries where Miers did volunteer.