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Archive for the ‘Accuracy’ Category

Einstein

One of journalism’s oldest clichés is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I had the desired initial reaction to the letter above, rejecting Albert Einstein for an associate professor position: I thought how cool it was that some pompous science professor with a Ph.D. after his name had been so condescendingly dismissive of the greatest modern scientific thinker.

And it was about when I was reading the last line, about Einstein’s thinking being artistic, rather than really about physics, that I wondered whether a Swiss professor would really be writing a German colleague in English. Snopes quickly provided the answer: No.

I’m not going to bother to embarrass the colleague who posted this on social media by naming him. He clearly has enough company that Snopes felt the need to check out the letter’s authenticity.

I recommend reading the debunking by Dan Evon. It’s a nice illustration of the various paths to verification you can use in any story. He found that the hoax was based on an actual fact: The University of Bern did reject Einstein’s initial application for a doctorate in 1907. But everything else was phony: the professor’s name and title, the letterhead, the language, even the image of a modern Einstein stamp.

You can repost interesting stuff like this on social media without checking if you want. And I’m not going to claim that I thoroughly vet every fun thing I’ve posted on social media. But social media, even personal accounts, are also good places for journalists to practice the skepticism that is the core of good journalism.

Especially if something seems too good to be true.

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These tweets early in the San Bernardino shooting Wednesday attracted a lot of media attention, including a blog post from me last night and the initial version of this post (most of which will be retained here, with updates noted):

shooting tweet 2

shooting tweet 1

As I noted in both posts, this was either an eyewitness who could provide helpful accounts for reporters working on a breaking news story or a prankster playing the media. She answered tonight:

it was a prank

I exposed the media

“Marie’s” success included a telephone interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a bogus “Gamergate” reference in an AP story that was published online by the New York Times.

My own original version of this post raised doubts about her. But I concluded she was probably legit (but I said wouldn’t use her tweets in a breaking news story without a phone interview). We never had a phone interview (though I gave her my number), but I thought my analysis of her media interactions fit well in the context of a blog that addresses media issues. Despite some passages that are now embarrassing, I think most of it holds up as valid analysis. I hope it improved after the liar started boasting about the hoax.

Let’s be clear about several things here:

  1. You can call it a prank, “Marie,” but it’s also a lie. That may make you smarter than some journalists, but you’re still a liar.
  2. Exploiting a tragedy for fun and laughs is lower on the scale of humanity than whatever you think media do in seeking to interview witnesses to tragedies. Enjoy your end zone dance, but I think you should attend the funerals of each of the San Bernardino victims whose deaths gave you such glee.
  3. “Marie” didn’t expose “the media.” She exposed a few media outlets (albeit some big ones; more on them later). As far as I can tell, most journalists who contacted “Marie” didn’t use her story. Some told me privately that they were skeptical. I will be asking them if I can use their time-stamped expressions of skepticism, all before her victory tweet.

Another important point here is that this may not be a one-woman (if “Marie” is, in fact, a woman) hoax. Shortly before she started her end-zone dance on Twitter, I had a direct-message exchange with a possible co-conspirator (unless this is another lie) who had posed as a CNN reporter early in her exchanges with the media. Some other fakes (detailed below in the original post along with the fake-CNN reporter) might also be co-conspirators.

Here are my DMs to and from “Paul Town,” the fake CNN reporter:

Town

Paul Town 2

Paul Town 3

For what it’s worth, I don’t think you fight for ethics in journalism, by lying, so that’s just another lie. I did note Marie’s tie to Gamergate, a running controversy over sexual harassment and conflict in video game development, in the original post.

Some journalists were skeptical from the first

Andrew Seaman of Reuters first called Marie to my attention by direct message Wednesday night, noting this tweet from Brian Ries of Mashable:

Ries

He elaborated in direct messages Wednesday night after my initial post, which focused more on the San Bernardino Sun’s breaking-news coverage, but reported his doubts:
Ries 1

Ries 2

Later in the original post, you’ll see several journalists who tweeted at Marie, asking for interviews. In most cases, I can’t see any indication that the journalists used anything from Marie, so I think skepticism was widespread, though obviously not universal.

Reported.ly, which specializes in real-time reporting from social media, and produced a social-media timeline of the San Bernardino shooting considered and rejected Marie’s tweet. Reported.ly chief Andy Carvin explained the decision to me in a Facebook message (I add the last names and Twitter profile links of the journalists he referred to by first name):

I just took a look at our chat log; we discussed the tweet in Slack. Kim Bui found it, then noted she hadn’t used it. I suggested we take a close look at the timestamp to see what if anything we could glean from it. Malachy Browne urged caution and noted it was the first time the user had ever mentioned San Bernardino. So we moved on and left her on the cutting room floor.

Monday update: Browne elaborated on Twitter:

Malachy Browne tweets

Gadi Schwartz of NBC LA reached out to Marie (you’ll see his tweet below), but told me later by DM that the timeline “seemed fishy so i quickly moved on.”

Scott Schwebke of the Orange County Register asked Marie to contact him, but eventually decided not to use anything from her:

Schwebke tweet

Shortly before Marie began gloating about her lie, Seaman, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, expressed strong skepticism in a Twitter DM:

Seaman DM

Who fell for the story?

While lots of journalists backed away, Marie did successfully troll some of the biggest names in the media, using the names “Marie Christmas,” “Marie Port” and “Marie A. Parker” in various media reports:

CNN

On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, the host interviewed “Marie Port” by telephone Wednesday night. I have asked CNN spokeswoman Erica Puntel for an explanation of how Cooper and/or his producers vetted Marie before putting her on the air, and will update if I hear from her.

I can’t find a clip of just that segment from Wednesday night on Cooper’s show site and don’t plan to watch the whole episode to catch that interview on an official CNN video. (I suspect CNN will ask YouTube to take the clip below down, so I’ll embed the video, followed by a screengrab):

AC360 screengrab

Marie and her friends commented on Twitter about the interview. I used those tweets in the original post and left them in place if you care to read that far.

Associated Press

When a liar suckers the AP, that means potentially 1,400 newspaper members and thousands of broadcast members might have used the story.

Here’s an archived version of the AP story of “Stories of those who survived mass shooting in California,” which included this sneaky reference to Gamergate:

The woman said he had a strange emblem on his shirt with the letters GG on it.

Friday morning update: AP Vice President and Director of Media Relations emailed me this bulletin, saying it was sent to members about 8 p.m. Thursday:

AP kill bulletin

The current AP story has a correction at the end:

This story has been corrected to eliminate the testimony from Marie A. Parker. That person has publicly retracted the statements.

I would prefer a stronger description than “retracted.” That person (whose name most certainly isn’t Marie A. Parker) is gloating about pulling a hoax on the AP. The correction should note that AP fell for a lie and quoted someone fictitious.

gloating over AP

And in that spirit, I should note that Marie gloated about me, too:

Marie trolls buttry

New York Times

While most AP members probably didn’t use the story (that’s true of most AP stories; every member selects a minority from a huge budget of news coverage), the New York Times did, and that prompted gloating from Marie and her friends/followers:

NYT gloat

I understand the Times story occurs as an automatic feed from AP with no Times handling. The Times story did not carry the correction when I updated this story late Thursday, but it carries the AP correction Friday morning.

Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett emailed me:

As far as I can tell, that story was part of the automated feed of AP (and Reuters) stories that readers can access through nytimes.com. Those stories are not selected or edited by Times editors. Corrections to them, when needed, are handled by the AP.

The Times did write its own story on a hoax involving a possible suspect’s name, but I’m not going into that here.

International Business Times

The International Business Times, quoted “Marie Christmas,” saying she lived in “La Puerta, Calif.” The story didn’t say whether they communicated by phone or Twitter DM. I can’t find any tweets between them. Google Maps shows a couple California businesses in the San Diego area named La Puerta, but not a community by that name. La Puente, Calif., is about 50 miles west of San Bernardino. I’ve asked IB Times contacts for explanation and will update if they respond. At 11:30 p.m. Central time Thursday, the story was not corrected.

Jay Dow

New York TV reporter Jay Dow of WPIX-TV made the best media mea culpa:

Jay Dow guilty pleaWhat’s left of my original post

Pieces of the original post have been moved up and updated. I don’t unpublish without a good reason, and embarrassment isn’t a good enough one. So here’s what’s left of what I posted Thursday evening shortly before Marie started boasting about the hoax. I will note some updates and add comments on where I am pleased or disappointed with what I originally wrote. But it’s all here, unless I moved it up and updated:

Eyewitnesses who tweet about horrible news events can be important, willing and helpful sources for journalists covering breaking news.

All journalism ethics codes stress accuracy and verification. Coverage of breaking news has always tested journalists’ ability to verify information in a hurry. The 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, well into the digital age, but at the birth of the social media age we’re experiencing now, resulted in inaccurate front-page banner headlines and late-night broadcasts trumpeting the “miracle rescue” of 12 trapped coal miners. It later turned out that only one miner had survived. The mistaken source in that story was then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.

Unfolding breaking stories today often call on journalists to vet lesser-known sources, such as “Marie Christmas,” whose tweets above offered journalists a chance to connect with an actual eyewitness, while awaiting those official reports (which, as the Manchin case reminds us, can be mistaken).

Breaking news stories have always required journalists to try to connect with eyewitnesses, some of whom want to talk to us and some of whom don’t. Asking them for interviews can be difficult, and sometimes a single witness will attract a media horde. Crude bunch that we can be, journalists (and our sources, too, I suppose) sometimes call this horde a clusterfuck. Which might be a good time to warn you that I’m not cleaning up language for this post. The rest of the F-bombs won’t be coming from me, but mostly references to journalists in the media horde.

When journalists try to verify that people actually witnessed events they have tweeted about, we can be annoying, even insulting. Verification — and media inquiries in general — can be an uncomfortable. Even when we’re doing good journalism we can be intrusive and we have to be skeptical.

Before I was able to ask “Marie Christmas” about what she saw and experienced Wednesday, I mentioned her (though not by @JewyMarie username or the obviously fictitious name on her Twitter account) in a post yesterday about breaking news coverage. (If you don’t want to read or reread the full post, just search “eyewitness” at the link above and you’ll find the section where I mentioned her tweets and why Brian Ries of Mashable raised questions about whether she was an actual witness.) I believe Ries’ concerns were valid and thoughtful, but I won’t elaborate on them again here.

Update: Yeah, this paragraph is embarrassing: After closer examination, I believe “Marie” (she used the last name Port in a CNN interview) actually was an eyewitness, even though I’m not sure we know her true name. I saw the red flags that prompted Ries’ concerns. But I saw many reasons to believe she was a true eyewitness. She had interactions before, during and after the incident that convince me strongly of her legitimacy. This will be a long post, with about 50 screenshots of tweets among Marie and friends, strangers and journalists. Some of the tweets will repeat ground I covered yesterday, but with screenshots this time, rather than just quotes.

I didn’t use screenshots last night because Marie had taken her Twitter account private. I asked to follow her (you can’t read tweets from a private account unless the user accepts you as a follower). She accepted my request and after our discussion by direct message, I have decided to use screenshots of tweets from, to and about her. She has decided to speak publicly about her experience yesterday, and I think her direct messages and Twitter exchanges illustrate some points about breaking news coverage and verification, as well as about the toll journalism can take on sources and how some of the public views our work.

Interspersed with the screenshots will be my comments. I won’t use screenshots that address some personal matters Marie tweeted about before her moment of fame, but those tweets contributed to my belief that she’s legitimate. We’ll start with my direct-message exchange with her:

DMs 1

I normally wouldn’t ask someone that bluntly about verification and whether she was actually there. A phone call would have allowed more gradual and polite vetting, some basic questions about who she was, etc. But since we were communicating by Twitter, I got to the point more directly. I also had already given her a link in which I discussed reasons for skepticism about her specifically. So I got to the point. I think you can detect irritation in the messages below, and I understand and respect that response. If we have more exchanges, I will add them to this post.

Second DM string

She has not DM’d me since, which I understand, but since she had answered questions and had done an earlier interview, I decided to grab screenshots and use her Twitter exchanges.

Clearly, she was right about her birthday. Before her birthday lunch, she got lots of greetings from Twitter friends:

happy birthday

birthday 1

birthday 2

Long birthday

birthday plans

chef boyardee

The birthday greetings don’t verify that Marie witnessed the shooting. But they do identify that the person who tweeted about the shooting is a real person with real friends who knew it was her birthday and acted friendly toward her. All of that could describe a prankster. But I’d be more suspicious of someone with a fairly inactive previous Twitter history. Marie is active and lively on Twitter. This looks like someone who would tweet if she saw something terrifying unfold on her birthday.

Plus, the tweets identify lots of friends you could contact for verification. Some might connect you with Marie directly. Some might have been at the birthday gathering and shot their own photos of it. I didn’t try to contact the friends, but would have if I were covering a breaking story. I did check their timelines and didn’t find anyone who had been at the birthday gathering, but also didn’t see anything suspicious. They appeared to share interests and personality traits. One tweeted about hearing Marie on CNN that evening. Update: Trying to contact the friends directly would have certainly raised suspicions. 

CNN tweet

Of course, that could be amazement about a friend being on CNN to discuss what she witnessed. Or it could be amazement that a friend pulled off a con. More on the CNN interview later.

As I noted yesterday, Ries saw concerns in Marie’s timeline: (Update: I used this screengrab up higher, but decided to leave it in its original place, too.)

Ries

Sarcasm is a frequent tone in Marie’s timeline, and nothing I could see before Wednesday indicated any connection to San Bernardino (as Ries noted in a direct message). And I saw tweets about pranks, though they seemed to be appreciation for pranks by others, not a pattern of playing pranks herself. I saw valid reasons to wonder about the authenticity of Wednesday’s claim. But I have no doubt this is an authentic person’s oft-used Twitter account, even if the name is fictional. Frequent interests of Marie are Anime, video games and the Gamergate sexual-cyberharasssment controversy (in which Roguestar is a figure):

anime

videogame

samurai jack

Roguestar

Marie Christmas, media star

I have taught thousands of journalists in recent years to use Twitter to connect with eyewitnesses to breaking news events. My first blog post on the topic was six years ago this month, noting how slow media organizations were in catching up with a survivor who tweeted immediately and extensively about a Denver plane crash. I have used that example in dozens of workshops, seminars and classes.

Back then, watching carefully on Twitter was a certain path to a scoop. Update: In teaching verification techniques, I noted that the survivor’s username, @2drinksbehind, should be a red flag, as Marie’s obviously bogus name was. But his timeline provided more help in verifying his authenticity.

Well, today someone who tweets from the scene of a breaking story gets plenty of media attention, more than I noted in yesterday’s post. Marie received multiple inquiries from some news organizations (it’s not uncommon to have lots of journalists working a story this big and duplication is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent).

I am messaging the journalists cited here in a variety of ways, before and after I post, and will update if they respond.

New York’s Gray Lady and tabloid Daily News both wanted to talk to Marie:

NYT

NYT 2

NY Daily News Fairfield response

More shortly on John Fairfield and others who objected to journalists seeking interviews with Marie.

reuters

This next inquiry came from the Chicago Tribune. Of course journalists should emphasize safety over media contact, as Scott Kleinberg did here:

Kleinberg location

Update (after initial publication but before the hoax-boasting started): Kleinberg, social media editor for the Chicago Tribune, send this detailed explanation of his Twitter approach to possible eyewitnesses (before the hoax was revealed):

First and foremost, I’m a stickler for accuracy. My tweets about this situation were careful … using official accounts, etc.

Maybe you noticed that I sent an angry tweet with all caps to the general world telling them not to tweet verbatim from the scanner. Ever since Boston it’s been a thing and it drives me mad.

With , I had a few thoughts at the time. Remember … I’ve been live tweeting in one form or another since 2008-2009 so I’ve learned a thing or 100 along the way. First thing: Never tweet and provide email addresses or phone numbers. That makes you look desperate and I bet it’s what attracted those naysayers.

They say be careful and launch into the contact thing so it seems disingenuous. I was careful to put safety first and let her know that we’d love to talk to her but I didn’t want to put any specifics out there yet.

Right or wrong or helpful, those other journalists don’t realize how much perception matters. So for me I immediately thought of telling her to stay safe … I do that when I ask people to tweet weather photos so I’m all about safety.

I figured that if she responded, then I’d go into the deep verifying and ask her a whole bunch of questions. In the meantime I was looking at her feed and trying to get a sense for who she was. I instantly thought she was young and in high school based on the subject matter, the lack of capital letters and next to zero punctuation. I’d guess a senior in high school as some of the friends wishing her happy birthday had 15 in their Twitter handles, which I believe is their graduating year.

At that moment I just wanted to make the connection. And I wasn’t looking per se to talk to an eyewitness, but I just happened to catch hers and the tone resonated where I wanted to reach out. The people who put in phone numbers and act desperate often send the same tweet to multiple people and that adds to the desperation even more.

Kleinberg did not get a response from Marie, but I like his thoughtful approach. I’m not opposed to tweeting a phone number, but I think he makes a valid point. I know many journalists who’ve gotten great interviews (and been able to vet sources effectively) that way. But perhaps that was more effective before today’s Twitter media horde.

Update: After being informed of the hoax, Kleinberg added:

Kleinberg DM

MSNBC invited a phone call. You can vet a source better and more politely over the phones. Phone numbers may be a your-mileage-might-vary situation:

msnbc

NBCLA Gadi Schwartz

This next inquiry is from the Daily Beast. (I recommend that journalists reaching out to news eyewitnesses identify themselves in the tweets, rather than counting on the person to check your profile to learn who you are.)

Daily Beast

Even a Russian media outlet wanted to talk to Marie:

RT producer

Multiple responses here. I’m not sure why I haven’t been able to see ABC producer Ali Ehrlich‘s tweet to Marie. More shortly on some of the others, but this string shows the horde Marie was attracting.

Media responses

As this next tweet indicates, Marie was not going to be easy to interview (clearly a red flag in retrospect, though some journalists, as noted above, backed away in part because of the lack of a phone). The “Buzzfeed Afghanistan” inquiry is clearly a fake, but the media inquiry at the end of this string was legitimate.

No phone

Backlash to media inquiries

John Fairfield, mentioned above, was the most consistent scold of journalists seeking interviews with Marie. But he had plenty of company:

CBS News Campa Fairfield response

Fairfield ABC responseKaty Conrad CBS response

KCBS response

KNBC thread

roaches

Update: Jenna Susko of NBC LA says:

I messaged with her but did not use it.

Fake fake fake

Merry Fyrsmas, included above in a string of legitimate media inquiries, does not appear to be an actual journalist, nor is Fyrasec News, which she cited, an actual news organization (or one you can find on Google, at least). I suspect this is a friend, mocking journalists’ inquiries of Marie.

Fryasec Fairfield response 2

Update: @Fyrasec confirmed my conclusion:

Merry Fyrsmas

The inquiry below appears to be a fake, too. Merry Coyote’s link in the Twitter bio is not to a political blog and I could not find such a blog. Might be a friend of Marie’s mocking all the media attention. Or just a stranger joining the clamor.

Crazy Coyote

The question below appears like something an actual journalist might ask, but the inquirer doesn’t identify himself and discloses in his Twitter bio that the “Counterspin Central” blog he once authored is no longer active. Hesiod Thogony, whether a fake or real name for this Twitter user, has its roots in antiquity that I don’t care to read about.

Hesiod theogony

A fake CNN reporter

CNN Paul Townjpg

Though Marie did eventually appear on CNN, this inquiry is a fake. CNN reporters and producers are pretty easy to Google and I can’t find any indication of a CNN employee by that name. Here’s the top of his Twitter page:

Paul Town profile

And the tweet pinned at the top of his timeline:

Indonesian boy

And the home page for paultown.com, the link from his Twitter bio:

Paul Town.com

Nothing there looks like a journalist. Erica Puntel from CNN PR confirmed by email my conclusion that he’s a fake. Will update if I hear from him. (If he follows me back, I’ll DM him questions. If not, I’ll tweet at him when I post this, inviting comment. The blog has no contact information that I can find.)

Update: “Town” followed me back and I’ve added our DM exchange up high. He’s the guy (if he’s male) claiming a “secret cabal” of media trolls.

Actual interviews

Marie later exchanged tweets from an actual CNN reporter:

CNN Hanks Farifield response

Update: Hanks would not discuss his interactions with Marie. In fairness it should be noted that he is a CNN digital writer/producer, and I could not find any references to “Marie” on CNN.com. Hanks does not produce for Anderson Cooper 360, the CNN show where Cooper interviewed “Marie Port” by telephone Wednesday night, as I noted earlier in the updated post.

The reaction to the Cooper interview seems to indicate friends regarded it as legit. In retrospect, some, if not all, were clearly in on the hoax:

cnn interview 1

Anderson Cooper

Marie and her friends wound down the evening with light banter.

verified accounts

She summed the day up:

fuck

I think if she would have gotten in touch with me on deadline, I could have verified pretty quickly that Marie was a valid eyewitness and tried to use and verify her real given name. I wouldn’t have used her tweets in a breaking story without talking to her, though. Update: I’m glad I originally said that I wouldn’t use the tweets without talking to her. And, given the fact that she was lying, I’m certain I would have been able to determine that if we had ever talked on the phone.

I feel comfortable using them here because of our Twitter exchange and the context I am providing. The work I spent on this blog post was way more than you can spend on one source in most breaking news stories.

Here were my last DMs to her (I have not heard back, but will try again and update if I do).

final DMs with Marie

I’ll update with responses, if any, from Marie and journalists I have messaged (and will continue messaging; sometimes sending the link to a published post brings a response).

Post script

Verification HandbookAs I’ve noted in earlier posts about identifying mass killers, I don’t like indulging attention-seekers, and these trolls clearly relish attention, even if for their fake names. So it sickens me to feed that disgusting behavior with this much attention. But journalists covering breaking news should learn from our mistakes. I made mistakes in my initial analysis of this episode, and other journalists made bigger mistakes. So I wrote this long, long updated analysis in hopes of making it harder for trolls to exploit tragedy, and journalists’ challenges in covering unfolding breaking news.

I suggest reading my social media verification tips (I may need to reread them myself, and update). I also suggest reading the Verification Handbook. In my chapter of that book, I used (and explained the history of) one of journalism’s favorite clichés: If your mother tells you she loves you check it out. And if someone with a phony-sounding name tells you anything, double-check and triple-check it out. Or move on to a more credible source.

One final point: This hoax was clearly rooted in Twitter, and social media have given liars and pranksters new tools. But media hoaxes way predate social media. Journalists have been interviewing teen-age boys named “Heywood Jablome” (say it out loud; the kids always spell it for the gullible reporters) for decades.

Friday evening postscript

If you’ve made it this far, you might find the comments from trolls below interesting. Fascinating patterns: Moral indignation about failings (some of them valid, obviously) by the media but completely clueless about how cowardly they appear hiding behind bogus names and how completely lacking they are in integrity, as they trumpet lying as a perverted tool of digital vigilantism. I responded to a few, because I respond to almost all commenters here, but I’m going to stop. I generally delete comments from trolls, because they are so clearly seeking attention and I don’t like to indulge attention-seekers. But they seem appropriate here, showing the psychology of the lying troll better than I could describe it.

Update: Of course, I spoke too soon. Right after I posted the paragraph above, a troll lied in a comment, so I deleted it. You can defend lying here, but I won’t tolerate new lies. Find somewhere else to troll. And another update: No sooner did I post that last update than the same troll posted another long diatribe with more lies. I’ve deleted his/her entire thread, including my responses. This was the most active troll in the comments, but I think enough others remain to illustrate the points I’ve made above.

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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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Craig Silverman

Craig Silverman

Journalists and news organizations need to do a better job of avoiding involvement in the spread of lies and unconfirmed rumors.

Accuracy and credibility are the heart of good journalism, and Craig Silverman‘s study Lies, Damned Lies and Viral Content documents widespread disregard for both in the spreading of digital reports by pro.

I won’t attempt to summarize the report here, though I will use some favorite quotes from it at the end of this post. I hope you will read the full report (it’s 164 pages) and consider what it says about you and your news organization.

What I want to focus on here are some suggestions for news organizations and individual journalists, some of which repeat Craig’s own suggestions and some of which are my suggestions, inspired by his report:

Confirming and debunking rumors

To start, I don’t think chasing rumors is necessarily the highest form of journalism, though admittedly, great journalistic investigation starts with a tip that’s indistinguishable from a rumor. But in general, I would encourage a journalistic approach that seeks to find and publish new information rather than chasing rumors. (more…)

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Rolling StoneInvestigating an allegation of rape is one of the most difficult things for a reporter (or police detective or prosecutor) to do.

I’m not going to dwell here on the Rolling Stone reporting about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Lots of excellent journalists have commented on Rolling Stone’s faulty reporting and the related issues, and I’ll link to some of the pieces I have seen at the end of this piece.

I will say this about the Rolling Stone story: If men from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity didn’t rape “Jackie,” the Rolling Stone’s central source, the story irresponsibly smeared any innocent men in the fraternity. If “Jackie” was raped, the story irresponsibly gave millions of rape survivors one more reason not to tell their stories. Rape is the most underreported violent crime in our society and the greatest tragedy of this journalistic travesty is that the outcry over the Rolling Stone story will undoubtedly cause some rape survivors to keep the crimes against them secret, out of fear that they won’t be believed. When writing about rape, journalists have to get their facts right. Being wrong in either direction is grossly irresponsible.

My point here, though, is not to write one more commentary on the sins of the Rolling Stone. I am writing to provide advice for journalists writing about rape and other intimate and/or traumatic topics. (more…)

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When news organizations correct errors, we should not mislead readers.

That sounds like an obvious statement, but it’s actually the topic of a debate on Twitter that I’ve joined today. I should preface this by noting that the people I’m arguing this topic with are friends and outstanding journalists whom I respect. But they are wrong about this.

Here’s the situation: When newspapers (and perhaps other news organizations) correct errors, we tend not to place blame. But when an editor adds an error to a reporter’s story, the correction misleads, implying to any readers who read bylines that the reporter erred. The correction is also misleading to sources, who usually know who the writer was and regularly make decisions about whether and how much to trust reporters.

On its surface, this feels like a journalists’ argument about how many angels (or perhaps devils, in this case) can dance on the head of a pin. Good friends have dismissed my suggestion on Twitter today as “finger-pointing.”

But when you take a phone call from an angry son whose living father was identified by an editor’s insertion into your story as “the late,” you see that this is not a trivial matter and it’s not about finger-pointing. It’s about accuracy. And responsibility. And accountability. (more…)

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