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Archive for October 7th, 2015

Charities make feel-good stories for journalists and too often we turn off the skepticism and verification upon which journalism is built.

Deni Elliott

Deni Elliott

This will be mostly a guest post from Deni Elliott, Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Elliott also was contacted by Nancy Levine, the key source for a post I wrote in August and another yesterday about weak reporting on a charity and failure to correct or even re-examine the original flawed reporting.

I told Elliott that her emails, commenting about media coverage of charities, would make a good guest post, so I use them here with her permission. You will understand the references to Pari Livermore and Spotlight on Heroes if you read the earlier posts first. But that context probably is not necessary for understanding Elliott’s points, presented here with minimal editing and some comments from me.

I think that your August 28 column on the “statute of limitations on correcting errors” was excellent in pointing out that if flawed stories, such as the 2007-08 puff pieces on Pari Livermore, continue to be live on the eternal internet, then corrections need to be attached to the original story whenever substantial errors are found.

However, I think that there is a bigger story that news media are missing here, because it is so hard for reporters and editors to break out of their formulaic and knee-jerk response when someone says, ‘Charity.’ Even in the 2015 reporting, the fact that Spotlight on Heroes was not a ‘real’ charity is included as a ‘whoops’ in the context of her giving to other charities. The attitude seems to be that if she’s giving some money to some real charities, then I guess she can’t be really bad. …

As I understand it, Livermore never accounted for thousands of dollars in donations by filing IRS Form 990s or by reporting Spotlight on Heroes income that went to The California Study. If The California Study is a charity, that organization would have needed to report donations. However you look at it, Livermore had a legal requirement to account for all of the donations she received and how they were used. But, no news organization seems to be using public records to track down where the money went or if thousands of dollars has simply disappeared with no accounting.

And, as I understand it, Spotlight on Heroes was suspended as a business entity by California in 2009 for failure to pay taxes. If that’s the case, from 2009 (when Livermore would certainly have been notified that she had overlooked the need to file a tax return) through 2015, when she asked Nancy Levine to send a donation to that organization to her home address, she was certainly breaking some state and/or federal laws with every donation she solicited. Again, no news organization seems to be picking up on this as a crucial element of the current story.

And, maybe I have my facts wrong. I haven’t followed these issues in depth, but am wondering why news organizations have not followed them either.

I’ve gotten interested in Nancy’s story and the response from various news organizations and scholars such as yourself because I’m writing a chapter right now on how legacy news organizations are responding to the digital era. (Wiley/Blackwell, Ethics for a Digital Era, with co-author Edward Spence.) The Levine-Livermore case seems a good way to start that chapter, mainly dealing with the issues you cover in your column.

Unfortunately, the problem of news media getting stuck in the ‘Charity=GOOD’ formula has gone on way longer than the information revolution. I’ve written about that over many years.

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