Thursday, May 12, 2005

That 'credibility' thing again.

Without citing examples, many journalists remain united in denouncing bloggers as dubious news/opinion depots for not having timelines, editors or an ombudsman. Instead, they keep giving us multiple unintentional examples of their own sloppy deceit:

I've posted the entire column, as the link requires subscription. Read the whole story below. Or don't.
The Public Editor: Latest lapses find newspapers on defensive again
By Armando Acuña -- The Public Editor
Published 2:15 am PDT Sunday, April 17, 2005

Here we go again. Another round of journalistic lapses at leading American newspapers. Reporters suspended. Internal investigations launched. Embarrassing public corrections. Institutional credibility called into question. If it sounds distressingly familiar, it is.

In the last month, a rash of ethical blunders has once again focused uncomfortable attention on whether readers should believe what they read in the newspaper.

The frustrating and sad thing from a journalist's perspective is that all the wounds were self-inflicted. The saving grace - if, indeed, there is one - is that the newspapers involved quickly and forthrightly owned up to their mistakes, instead of arrogantly ignoring them or letting them fester.

The journalistic offenses occurred at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit Free Press.

Let's begin:

Mitch Albom is a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He has been called America's most decorated sportswriter and is the embodiment of a newspaper star. Not only does he write a syndicated column, but he is the author of best-selling books such as "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," hosts a Detroit radio program and is a regular guest on ESPN.

In a column published Sunday, April 3, Albom wrote about Michigan State playing the previous day in the semi-finals of college basketball's Final Four. He described how two former Michigan State stars and current NBA players, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson, traveled to the game, sat in the stands "in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater."

Problem is, it never happened. Cleaves and Richardson weren't at the game.

Turns out Albom wrote his column on Friday, the day before the game, to meet a printing deadline for Sunday's paper. Cleaves and Richardson had told Albom they planned on being at the game and the columnist wrote his piece as though the event had already happened. Big mistake.

As of The Bee's press time, Albom was suspended while the paper investigates the matter; its publisher-editor wrote a front-page "Dear Readers" explanation, and Albom penned an apology to his readers.

"Albom was wrong to report that athletes were there when the game had not yet been played. And the Free Press was wrong to publish it," said the paper's publisher and editor, Carole Leigh Hutton.

At worst, what Albom did is a fabrication. At minimum, it's dishonest, stupid and disrespects readers.

Over at the New York Times, the paper decided to play footsie with Columbia University, home of the Pulitzers, journalism's top prize, and in so doing got burned by ignoring its own ethics policy, while serving its self interest above those of its readers.

The university wanted to release a report about the results of a faculty investigation into allegations by pro-Israel Jewish students that they were harassed by pro-Palestinian professors.

The school offered the paper a scoop. It would release the report a day early to the Times but on one condition. The paper had to agree not to seek comment from any "interested parties," namely the protesting students. In essence, the school asked for an incomplete and unbalanced story. Astonishingly, the Times agreed.

The ensuing March 31 front-page story was without student comment, leaving that for a follow-up story the next day.

In a long editor's note April 6 explaining the lapse in judgment, the paper said the writer and her editors did not recall the paper's policy forbidding writers to "forgo follow-up reporting in exchange for information."

"Without a response from the complainants (the students), the article was incomplete; it should not have appeared in that form." No kidding.

For a paper still haunted by the turmoil unleashed by the Jayson Blair plagiarism-fabrication scandal, the decision to voluntarily put on a reporting straitjacket is confounding.

"If you're looking for an example of irresponsible journalism, this is about as cut and dried as it gets," said CJR Daily, the Columbia Journalism Review's Web site.

At the Los Angeles Times, editors are dealing with a problematic feature story about hazing at Chico State University.

The March 29 story by reporter Eric Slater was riddled with errors, including citing the death of a college student from alcohol poisoning who actually lived and using quotes from the university's president without attributing them as coming from the local newspaper.

The Times printed a lengthy correction, but the university's president remains unmollified and wants a more substantial correction. The editor of the Chico paper, the Enterprise Record, says the two local people quoted by name in the story (five others are quoted anonymously) may not exist.

After the correction and following an April 3 column by the Enterprise Record's editor, David Little, that cast doubts on the veracity of Slater's story, the Times dispatched an editor to Chico on a fact-finding mission. That alone is extraordinary and an indication of how seriously the paper is taking the matter.

Slater, who reportedly has been suspended, wrote an e-mail to his friends and colleagues saying, "I wrote the worst story in my 19-year journalism career the other day. I wanted to apologize to you directly."

He and his editor called the university president to apologize, confirmed Joe Wills, the university's director of public affairs and publications.

As for what happens next, here's what Martha Goldstein, the paper's vice president for communication, said in an e-mail to me:

"Editors at the Los Angeles Times have been made aware that there may be flaws in the March 29 Chico State story that were not addressed in the correction that ran on March 31. Needless to say, this is an issue of concern as well to everyone here, and editors are in the process of reviewing the matter. Please be assured that if there are additional problems with the story, The Times will report its findings when the review is completed."

Again, newspapers find themselves on the defensive. Again, they must explain sloppy work and lapses in judgment and ask for forgiveness and trust. Let's hope readers are still listening.

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