Archive for the ‘Accuracy’ Category

Times Sullivan postThanks to New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan for providing the first acknowledgment by anyone at the Times of a fundamentally flawed story I have noted here before.

I won’t revisit the saga of a 2007 Times puff piece about matchmaker Pari Livermore here. Read the links below if you want the background. The story’s premise was flawed and it inaccurately referred to a “charity event,” when the primary beneficiary was not registered as a charity. I think the Times should have corrected the story, regardless of its age (Sullivan called for an follow-up, not a correction). While we disagree about the need for a correction, I applaud Sullivan’s acknowledgment that the Times should have followed up on it when it learned about its flawed premise.

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine

On one point I will heartily agree with Sullivan. Nancy Levine contacted Sullivan and me after she almost made a donation to Livermore, after finding and reading the Times story. But Levine, an executive recruiter, did a little more checking and learned that Spotlight on Heroes, the organization Livermore told her to make the check out to, wasn’t actually registered as a charity.

Levine has sent dozens of emails to Sullivan, other Times editors, other media editors and directors, California legislators and regulators. Sullivan described Levine as “one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with.” That I can attest to. This, not so much:

I’ll note that Mr. Buttry is almost as dogged as Ms. Levine.

No, I’m not nearly as dogged as Nancy is. She is also one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with. The media need persistent, dogged people to hold us accountable. Thanks, Nancy!

Twitter reactions

Previous posts relating to the Times Livermore story

Is there a statute of limitations on correcting errors or updating flawed stories?

Why are journalists so reluctant to correct and re-examine challenged stories?

Deni Elliott: Journalists often fail to think beyond ‘Charity = GOOD’

Other journalists correct a story the New York Times stubbornly refuses to correct

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Ben Carson Stonehenge memeI was updating some slides for a class on writing for social media last week and wanted to update the memes I used early in the class.

When I taught a similar class last spring, I used some Rand Paul memes to illustrate points after using some Hillary Clinton memes. The Republican race didn’t have a clear front-runner, but Paul had inspired some pro and con memes that fit the writing points I was making in class. In both cases, I wasn’t trying to make partisan points about the candidates (and used pro and con memes about each of them). I was just trying to use timely points about applying the craft of writing to memes.

Paul is lagging in the Republican presidential polls, though, so I updated my slides last week with some memes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Within a week, my Carson memes were out of date. A gusher of memes was fueled by Carson’s speculation that the Egyptian pyramids were built for storing grain, followed by media debunking of his claims about getting a “full scholarship” offer to West Point, meeting Gen. William Westmoreland as a young high school ROTC cadet, behaving violently in his youth and a story about a hoax by a professor at Yale. (I’m working on a subsequent post on fact-checking, relating to these stories and Carson’s response to them.)

Each of the stories prompted more memes, including some that played on humor from multiple Carson stories.

I don’t know whether memes are a permanent form of writing that will endure, or whether they will pass as a fad. But clearly writing in social media, for now, is a matter of both the visual effect of blending words and photos and the visual use of type fonts, sizes and styles.

From a journalism standpoint, the meme combines many of the principles and techniques of headline writing with newer social-media writing techniques.

I’ve never claimed expertise in design, but I expand here (with some newer Carson memes added to the ones I used in class) on the points I made in classes last week about writing in memes:

Ben Carson memes

My former Digital First Media colleague, Ryan Teague Beckwith, did a great story in 2012 about Barack Obama as our first meme president.

Now memes are a regular part of the social media conversation about politics. Whether they love or hate Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Carson, partisans express their opinions, often with humor, in memes. You blend words and images to make a clear point supporting your candidate or mocking the opponent. If political campaigns don’t already have meme specialists, they will soon. I know of news organizations that have posted memes on social media to promote stories. I don’t know whether that will become standard, but I would be experimenting with it if I were in a newsroom someday.

Below are some Carson memes I used in last week’s classes, with some advice on writing memes (updated with a few memes that came out since my classes ended last Wednesday): (more…)

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Stubbornness can lead to some outstanding journalism. But it also can cause journalists to stand by stories that need to be corrected or re-examined.

I think it’s time to say the New York Times is just being stubborn in its refusal to update or correct its inaccurate 2007 story about Pari Livermore.

Nonprofit chroniclesNearly three months after Nancy Levine, a potential client of Livermore’s, called to Times editors’ attention the failings of the 2007 story, five different journalists have investigated Livermore’s matchmaking efforts and the “charitable” donations she asks clients to make in return for her service. (And I’m not counting August and October posts on this blog.) All of the investigations, including a post Sunday by Marc Gunther in Nonprofit Chronicles, have found the same thing: Livermore’s favored “charity,” Spotlight on Heroes, has never been registered as a charity.

Unless all of these investigations are wrong, the Times should correct its story.

The technicality Times editors cite in not correcting or even re-examining the 2007 Times story by Stephanie Rosenbloom is that it did not mention Spotlight on Heroes. But the whole premise of the story was Livermore’s blend of matchmaking and philanthropy. The story referred to the 2007 Red & White Ball as a “charity event,” even though 2007 promotional materials for the ball directed ticket buyers to make out their $175 checks to Spotlight on Heroes. I don’t know of any journalism ethical code, including the Times’ Standards and Ethics, that doesn’t require correcting errors, and that “charity event” reference clearly was an error, even if you don’t think a fundamentally flawed eight-year-old story needs deeper re-examination. (more…)

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I am dismayed by the continuing refusal of respected media companies to re-examine and correct their reporting when confronted with documentation of their errors.

I blogged about this problem in August, calling attention to puff pieces in the New York Times, San Francisco Examiner, CBS, NBC and other media, depicting Pari Livermore as a matchmaker who paired widowed and divorced middle-aged people in return for donations to “charities.”

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine

None of the media checked out Livermore’s charities thoroughly enough to learn that her favored charity, Spotlight on Heroes, wasn’t registered as a charity at all. The person who did the digging to learn that was Nancy Levine, a potential client. Levine reached out to me after being blown off by media organizations she approached, seeking a correction or update to their old puff pieces, which showed up in Internet searches, lending credibility to Livermore.

Before my August post, I emailed Livermore, inviting response, and I received no reply. I emailed again for this post and Livermore said she “did mess up the paperwork” for Spotlight on Heroes, sending something to the wrong address. She did not explain why the paperwork didn’t get straightened out and did not answer when I asked her repeatedly whether Spotlight was registered now as a charity. She claimed to have sent me an email (she didn’t say when), but a search of my inbox showed no messages from her. (She sent one Monday, listing work she says her matchmaking donations have supported.)

I can almost, sort of, kind of, nearly buy some media’s initial response to Levine. The stories were old and you could, in the quick read that many complaints receive from editors and news directors, conclude that the errors weren’t serious enough to demand a thorough review or a correction this long after the fact.

But I can’t get there. Levine is thorough and persistent (she would make a hell of an investigative reporter). She provided these news organizations (and me) with extensive documentation that Livermore’s charity, at the least, was not registered properly. If the lack of registration was an innocent mistake, the charitable donations that these puff pieces virtually encouraged were not tax-deductible, and that oversight certainly needed to be corrected. The story demands more investigation by any organization that published puff pieces. (more…)

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Jonathan Landay

Jonathan Landay

April 30 update: Jon Stewart interviewed Judith Miller, covering the aluminum tubes story discussed here.

I was perhaps not detailed enough in my criticism of Judith Miller’s memoir/fantasy book The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

Jonathan Landay, a Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington reporter, nailed the story that Miller tragically botched in 2002-3 — pre-war intelligence about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He provided by email some details that I didn’t bother to round up.

It was self-abuse enough to read Miller’s book. I didn’t want to dig back and find the stories in question to check any of her claims in the book. And, after a quick read, I wanted to pump out my review, so I didn’t take the time to check exactly what was in the two Knight-Ridder stories she cited dismissively (or the many she ignored entirely).

Landay kindly filled in some gaps in an email exchange thanking me for my post (links added by me; I did finally look up those stories):

Just another thought: the story to which she referred in her book eviscerated — I like that word — her aluminum tubes story. She obliquely criticizes me for using only one named source, David Albright, despite the fact that virtually all of her sources were anonymous, especially on her tubes story.

OK, I just checked and in an article of nearly 3,500 words, Miller cited just two named sources. But one of the names was a pseudonym, “Ahmed al-Shemri,” an Iraqi defector who claimed to work in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. He was quoted at length. Most of the rest of the article is attributed to various “Bush administration officials.” In The Story, Miller claims to have used lots of named sources in her WMD reporting. I’m not going to check all of her stories, but that wasn’t true of this one.

On Page 220 of The Story, in recounting how Times editors took her to task for failing to report the doubts revealed in a Landay article about whether the aluminum tubes could even be used as centrifuges to make nuclear weapons, Miller dismissed the Knight-Ridder story (though she attributed it to McClatchy) as based on unnamed sources: (more…)

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Cover of The Story: A Reporter's Journey, by Judith MillerJudith Miller clearly reflected in great detail on her rise to prominence in working on her memoir, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

She appears to have reflected very little, though, on her failures in reporting on intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the Bush administration was rushing the United States into that disastrous war.

Here’s how little The Story reveals about any examination by Miller of the weaknesses of her own reporting about WMDs: In her only reference to either of the Knight-Ridder reporters who reported extensively on the intelligence community’s doubts about Iraq’s WMDs, Miller identifies Jonathan Landay incorrectly as being with “the McClatchy newspaper chain.” McClatchy would not buy Knight-Ridder until 2006, but the context of the discussion Miller was recounting was 2004.

Landay and Warren Strobel worked for Knight-Ridder when they did the journalism that Miller and her New York Times colleagues should have been doing: reporting on doubts within U.S. intelligence agencies about the claims that Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction.

Because the Times and other media were all parroting the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had WMD’s, even some Knight-Ridder editors often didn’t run or buried the Landay-Strobel stories that countered that narrative. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted in 2013, “They published dissenting material, though their voices didn’t pierce the compliant noise from their peers.”

Miller, chief among those compliant peers, mentioned Landay in the context of a conversation with Times editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, who were preparing an editor’s note acknowledging the weaknesses in the newspaper’s pre-war coverage of intelligence about WMD’s. The two paragraphs in The Story about Landay (on Page 220) are fascinating and telling: (more…)

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Investigative reporting is about discovery of a story, not confirmation of your notions.

That is the key mistake Rolling Stone made in its false, and now retracted, story “A Rape on Campus,” as I read the Columbia School of Journalism report on the fiasco.

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote the Columbia authors, Sheila Coronel, J-School Dean Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz.

The failure started, though, with a preconceived notion of what the story should be. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely; Sean Woods, the primary editor of the story; and Will Dana, managing editor; had too strong a vision of what the story should be and not a strong enough commitment to learn what it really was.

I worked on a series on rape in 1993 for the Omaha World-Herald. We started out pursuing a notion about rape, focusing on rape by strangers, prompted by a series of rapes in an Omaha neighborhood.

We did report on that series of rapes and about stranger rape, but our series focused more heavily on two surprising factors that we found in our wider study of the issues: the startlingly low number of rapes that actually result in rape convictions and the startlingly high percentage of rape victims who were younger than 18.

The series we produced ended up being significantly different from the series we planned. That should be the case in most investigative stories: You make a plan to investigate a topic, not to support a premise. A good story investigated well takes you directions you didn’t anticipate.

If Rolling Stone had been trying to discover the story, the reporter and the editors would have insisted on talking to the friends of their primary source, whom they identified as “Jackie.” They would have insisted on talking to her date on the night in question, and to other men and women who attended the supposed “date night” at Phi Kappa Psi, the University of Virginia fraternity smeared by Rolling Stone‘s story.

Unlike Rolling Stone, we didn’t focus in our 1993 series on a single “emblematic” rape situation to tell in detail. We told stories of multiple rape survivors. Some profiles told more about circumstances of the rape. Others focused on the trauma the person experienced or the treatment she received. They told the story together, rather than burdening a single story with representing everything that we found in our investigation.

It is difficult to prove details of a rape, because accounts of what happened invariably conflict and witnesses to the actual crime are rare, unless they were participants, as Jackie alleged in the Rolling Stone story.

However, you can find confirmation (or conflict) in the circumstances surrounding a rape. In my various stories about rape, I have confirmed details about circumstances by obtaining police and medical reports and by interviewing friends, family members and attorneys of suspects and accusers.

Erdely did seek details, the Columbia report said:

In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.

For all that, though, the report concluded, Rolling Stone failed to pursue multiple opportunities to confirm details of Jackie’s story (or learn of the weaknesses in the story):

There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.

Those three critical failures were:

  • Erdely did not contact the friends Jackie said she talked with shortly after the assault that she described. Jackie never asked the reporter not to contact her friends independently.
  • Erdely asked the fraternity for a comment late in the reporting process, but never provided details of the story for them to address.
  • Erdely’s efforts to track down the alleged assailant were not diligent enough even to determine that no member of the fraternity worked at the aquatic center where Jackie was a lifeguard.

The one lifeguard at the pool who had the name Jackie used for her assailant was “not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however,” the Columbia report said. “The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault. If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.”

One of the most disappointing aspects of the report is Rolling Stone‘s response. Woods continues to point the finger at Jackie: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” he told the Columbia investigators.

That’s bullshit. As I’ve noted before, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the report is that Rolling Stone doesn’t recognize that this was a systemic failure, identifying problems the magazine must address. The reporter and editors just see the story as a result of mistakes they need to avoid repeating.

The Columbia report says:

Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.

Nothing in this Rolling Stone fiasco was the fault of Jackie. Whether she was a victim of some kind of sexual assault that she exaggerated, or was just a liar, she didn’t give the magazine enough to go on. Beyond confirming that the university had received a report of her allegation, Rolling Stone didn’t take any of the steps it could have taken to investigate her story.

You investigate a rape survivor’s story not just out of suspicion (but journalists should always be suspicious), but to bolster her story and yours. Rape accusers will be viciously attacked (I saw that happen in a case where the defendant eventually plead guilty). Even if you believe a story, you need to investigate it to confirm your belief and to strengthen the story.

Other responses to the Columbia report:

Jay Rosen‘s analysis of the report is far more detailed than mine.

So is Erik Wemple’s.

Ben Mullin of Poynter rounded up journalists’ reactions to the report.

My earlier post with advice on interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories.

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