Internet | Media

May 10, 2005

Interview with Adam Penenberg

After completing an investigation for Wired News of Michelle Delio's articles, Penenberg talks about what he found, how Wired News is changing its policies, and the state of journalism today.

David Goldenberg

Corrections: When referring to Delio's failure to provide source information, Adam Penenberg said, "It is what it is." An earlier version of the article quoted him as saying the nonsense phrase, "Is it what it is." And former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee's name was misspelled in an earlier version of the article.

Adam Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University and a Wired News media columnist, has just released his review of articles written for the technology-news website by Michelle Delio, a tech journalist who has seen several of her articles retracted or corrected in recent months by other publications. (To catch up on the Delio story, see Monday's Gelf update.) Monday evening, Wired News posted Penenberg's report along with a short article summarizing his findings and the publication's plans to tighten its sourcing rules. Later Monday, Penenberg spoke with Gelf about his investigation, Wired News's policy changes, and the current state of journalism.

Penenberg found that 24 of the 160 stories he and his staff of graduate students reviewed (Delio wrote over 700 for Wired News) contained sources he couldn't confirm, but Penenberg stopped short of concluding whether Delio invented any sources.

Penenberg wrote, "Assuming the reporter keeps complete records (i.e. interview notes, e-mails and full contact information for all sources) it should be a fairly straightforward procedure to fact-check an article, especially a tech story—most of the people who would appear in it would have some sort of presence on the web."

According to Penenberg, Delio didn't provide any evidence proving the existence of sources that he couldn't locate. "I asked for her sources and she didn't provide them," Penenberg said. "It is what it is." In the report, he gives details about the limited source information that Delio did provide. This information led him to out-of-order telephone numbers and auto-replied emails.

Penenberg says he doesn't particularly relish exposing journalists—he also famously outed serial fabricator Stephen Glass of the New Republic—but he does understand the importance of the role. "We have an epidemic of plagiarism, fabrication and—I don't know what you call it—reporters or columnists claiming to be places where they haven't been," he says. "As a professor and a journalist, it makes us all look bad. I'm tired of being lumped in with used-car salesman versions of journalists."

"No wonder people look to blogs and alternative sources of information," he adds. "Young people especially are so skeptical of mainstream media."

Penenberg says that this alternative publication played an important role in the Delio investigation. "Gelf was the first independent group going after this story," he says. "You did a really good job with sourcing." (Gelf's original Delio articles are here and here. After granting an initial interview to Gelf in March, Delio hasn't responded to a series of inquiries, including one Monday.)

In light of the revelations about Delio's work, Wired News has decided that, in the future, anonymous sources will be used only with appropriate justification. While this may seem odd, in that most of the disputed sources used by Delio were named, Penenberg sees it as yet another way to ensure honest sourcing. "[Former Washington Post Executive Editor] Ben Bradlee knew Deep Throat," he says. "Surely some tech reporter could provide source information to the editor."

Penenberg doesn't see any conflict of interest in working for Wired News and also reporting on them. "I get paid for my opinions," he says. "I'd be the first to tell them if I thought there was a problem." And though he is pleased with Wired News's decision to post transparently about Delio's stories, he thinks that its decision to require only freelancers to submit contact information for their sources is "a silly distinction." Delio wrote over 700 stories for Wired News as a "freelancer," more than two of Wired News's three staff writers. (I worked at Wired Magazine until earlier this year, and continue to freelance for Wired, which is owned and operated separately from Wired News.)

Wired News published Delio's stories at a rate of one almost every other day for over four years, and apparently never grew suspicious of her sourcing until her stories were pulled from the website of the Tech Review. Shouldn't they have noticed that Delio was often turning in stories with vague sourcing? "It's easy to say that now," Penenberg says, but adds, "There's not a lot you can do. Ultimately you have to trust your reporters."

With this journalism scandal, Wired News has the dubious honor of joining several major print publications. "Under most circumstances, Wired News would be thrilled to be lumped in with the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the New Republic," Penenberg says.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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