Charities make feel-good stories for journalists and too often we turn off the skepticism and verification upon which journalism is built.
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.
A fascinating aspect of the Livermore story is that while respected traditional news organizations such as the New York Times bit on Livermore’s “charity” story, the organizations that have debunked it, with Levine’s help, have been digital news organizations, often disrespected by traditional news organizations (who still pride themselves on their investigative journalism):
- Buzzfeed debunked the “glowing profiles” in other media with some thorough reporting by Kendall Taggart in August, as I noted in my first post on the media coverage of Livermore.
- The Daily Beast did a similar debunking story by Cerise Castle Sept. 7.
Levine has shared responses from various news organizations, brushing aside her requests for corrections, with Elliott and me. After reading some of them, Elliott responded:
What I’ve learned from your correspondence with news managers is that legacy news media simply do not want to follow up on the Livermore story.
My belief is that if the initial story written on Livermore was about fraudulent practices, you would see them leaping to report new developments.
But, media frames are hard to break. This was a feature story, not news. It was a positive profile, not an exposé.
Once something is one thing it is hard for news media, in my experience, to look at it differently, despite good evidence that they should.
That’s why I have a particular problem with the ‘guy living under the bridge’ Thanksgiving story and other formulaic puff pieces.
Long ago, I wrote a trade magazine piece on this problem relating to stories about organ transplantation.
But, you can make the same argument today about breast cancer ‘survivors’ and vets with PTSD crowd-sourcing to pay for needed service dogs.
When reporters and their editors think that they know the story that they are producing and think that it is a heartwarming (or guilt provoking) feature, the blinders come on. They don’t look critically at the big picture or even the macro details that distract from their narrow focus.
This reminded me of Ken Fuson’s outstanding “The Truth about Bob” series in 2002 (which should have won a Pulitzer), which debunked the story of a “homeless” con man who had been suckering journalists with various stories since asking Iowa’s governor for a life sentence in the 1970s because prison was his only home. I wish the story were still online, but all I could find was a brief description (and a dead link) in an Inkstain post. Ken started out doing a feel-good Christmas story and it turned into a fascinating narrative and investigative piece that told much more about journalism and gullibility than about Bob.
In a later email, Elliott added:
I do think that the Livermore case illustrates the lack of verification and unwillingness to look at the big picture that usually accompanies feel-good features on charities and non-profits.
And, of course there is the problem of eternally wrong stories available in online searches.
Isn’t it ironic that news organizations are generally unwilling to unpublish pieces because they believe it is important to maintain the (accurate) public record but are also unwilling to correct the record — attach a correction — in cases like this, where they have been shown that their record is wrong? Unless they are sued. In those cases, stories sometimes disappear from news organization websites without a trace or an explanation.
In one email, Elliott scoffed at the response from one news organization that didn’t review its story because its original reporting showed that Livermore’s clients gave some money to legitimate charities:
It is like pointing out that someone charged with a crime had also coached the local little league team.
The discussions between Elliott and Levine are exactly the kinds of discussions reporters should be having with editors or news directors about this story. Elliott responding to Levine:
People can lose a check or make mistakes in the handling of donated funds, although they shouldn’t. But, if Spotlight on Heroes was suspended as a business entity in 2009, then she can’t claim ignorance. It does not make sense to suggest that her asking you (and I assume others) in 2015 to send checks made out to Spotlight on Heroes to her home address was an error because she thought that it was covered under a different charitable organization.
She must have been informed by the State of California in 2009 that she could not do business under that name. If she had been doing her matchmaking as a business, she would have had to report her income.
In addition, charities need to file federal forms that are then public (usually Form 990s). Even if she really thought that Spotlight on Heroes was part of the other charity, she would have had to track and report the donations for the other charity’s reporting.
From the sounds of it, she filed no tax returns for Spotlight on Heroes either as a business or as a charity.
She took in, at least, thousands of dollars with absolutely no accounting of where that money went. And, she seems to think that the lack of accountability is justified because she (loosely) used the term ‘charity.’ As did Robin Hood.