March 23, 2005

Digging Deeper

Gelf examines more suspicious sourcing from a technology reporter.

David Goldenberg

It's tough proving a negative. It is even tougher proving that something or someone does not exist.

That's how Adam Penenberg began his 1998 article for Forbes Digital that exposed a hacker article by New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass as a fraud. Mr. Penenberg, assigned by his editor to match the Glass story, was confronted with a conundrum: how to verify that companies, organizations, ad campaigns, and people in Glass's story didn't exist, when he couldn't even find them. Ultimately, Penenberg never completely proved the negative, but he did exhaust all possible ways of verifying Glass's story, and concluded, "The article was a complete and utter hoax."

It is suprising how difficult it has been to locate the sources from Michelle Delio's articles. While we have located a number of people who said they were quoted perfectly, many questions remain about her other sources. All that's known for sure is that Technology Review has retracted two of her articles and removed seven others from its website. But there are other troubling elements in many of Delio articles for the tech-news site Wired News: sources that can't be found so they can't be proven to not exist. Gelf wrote about some of these yesterday; since then, we've found others. After granting an initial interview, Delio hasn't responded to several requests by email and phone to discuss her sources, and her Wired News editor won't discuss the specific articles either, so we're left only with questions and mystery. (Wired News is owned and operated separately from Wired Magazine, for which I worked until recently and still contribute articles.)

As it happens, Penenberg is now a New York University journalism professor and writes a media column for Wired News. Marty Cortinas, the managing editor of Wired News, assigned Penenberg to investigate Michelle Delio's articles, as indicated in a note posted today on the site's front page. "He's going to ask questions," Cortinas told Gelf. "I don't know when he'll finish." Penenberg declined to speak with Gelf until his investigation is complete.

Cortinas said that Wired News has no current plans to remove Delio's articles from the site, as Technology Review did. �We�re not even close to that,� he said. (In fact, Wired News published an article by Delio on Wednesday about the JavaOne conference.) Cortinas said he continues to be in contact with Delio. He declined to discuss the content of Delio�s articles, citing the ongoing investigation.

Gelf has looked over many of Delio's articles from Wired News and has tried to contact some of the people she quoted. Here are some of our curious findings. What they mean is hard to say, especially with Delio not commenting. They do suggest further investigation is warranted.

Sources we could reach

Three of the people Delio quoted told Gelf they were quoted correctly: Michelle Furrer, Mike Sweeny (quoted here, here, here, and here) and Rob Hoffman.

Meanwhile, Shawn Radford and Bill Talbot told Gelf that while the quotes Delio used contained some inaccuracies, they were generally correct.

Only one Delio source told Gelf today that her quotes were entirely incorrect. Marge Timmerman, whom Delio quoted in an article about grottos in Wisconsin last October, said that though she is still listed as a director on the grotto website, she has not worked at the grotto in over a year. Delio quoted Timmerman saying: "Many of the people who immigrated here came from a culture where it was normal to promise to build something big if your prayers were answered. I believe the tradition dates back to the time of the European plagues. People, entire villages, would vow that if they were saved from the plague they would build a shrine in thanks."

But Timmerman told Gelf that, while she doesn't remember whether she's met Delio, she's confident that she didn't say the quote attributed to her. "European Plagues? I never said that," she said, adding that she generally stuck to a script when she took people around the grotto. Timmerman's claim adds to that of Rev. Michael Amesse, another Delio source who told Gelf yesterday that he had never spoken to the reporter.

Sources we can't find

Gelf couldn't find many people Delio quoted. Some of her sources don't appear outside of her articles or links to her articles in Google and Nexis news-database searches. (Google and Nexis searches are only a rough way of investigating sources.) For example, Delio referred to Peter Vengelle in an article about airport security. A Google search and Nexis news-database search of his name reveal only links referring to Delio's story. (Others quoted in that article also only appear when affiliated with the article on Google and Nexis searches—see Fred Forsen and Matt Perello.)

Gelf couldn't locate other Delio sources with more common names within the professional fields that Delio said they belong to. Gelf was able to locate people with the same name as other sources, including Vince Puliafico, after a Google search. But a phone call to the Vince Pulafico we could locate soon revealed that he had never spoken with Delio nor had he worked in the city or job field that Delio had described.

Additionally, Delio referred to many of her sources as freelancers or unemployed, or otherwise omitted any business or organizational affiliation, making them far more difficult to find.

Searching the directory of Magyar Tudomanyos Akademia, the Hungarian Academy of Science, didn't turn up any of the professors Delio has quoted from there.

Many of Delio's quotes of sources we couldn't find are long, coherent, and encapsulate a point she's trying to make in the article. For example, in an article about Microsoft's Windows update site:

"I check Windows Update every couple of weeks," said Chicago art director Neil Golen. "And there's always a couple of dozen huge files that they want me to download. Can't they just have a special emergency section for the truly essential stuff?"

In 18 separate articles, Delio quoted various people with the last name of Adams—only one of whom we could verify. In 12 articles, she quoted various people with the last name of Shapiro—none of whom we could verify.

What does this all mean? It's fair to say that we do not yet know. Perhaps Delio intrepidly dug up qualified sources that other reporters had neglected. If that's the case, she should come forward with more details so her sources can be verified, and any doubts can be put to rest.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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