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Internet | Media

May 9, 2005

Michelle Delio Update

Adam Penenberg's investigation appears to have prompted the tech-news site Wired News to question quotations in 24 of 160 Delio-authored articles and to tighten its sourcing rules.

David Goldenberg

(UPDATE, 5/9, 7:30 p.m. ET: This post has been updated by Carl Bialik since it was first published to reflect new information made available on Wired News's website.)

Wired News found 23 articles by freelancer Michelle Delio that contain sources its appointed investigator couldn't confirm, including four articles "in which unconfirmed sources arguably play a more prominent role," according to a preliminary version of the tech-news site's report that hasn't yet been made public but which Gelf was able to piece together from a series of searches on the tech-news site.

The review covered 160 articles, mostly from last year. Wired News also tightened its sourcing rules, demanding justification for anonymous sources and requiring freelancers to submit contact information for all named sources, according to the version of the report. In March, Wired News tapped Adam Penenberg, a New York University journalism professor and Wired News media columnist, to investigate Delio's stories written for the website, prompted by another site's retraction of her articles and Gelf's own inquiries (printed here and here). In 1998, Penenberg exposed an article by Stephen Glass to be fraudulent, which began the unraveling of Glass's deceptions at the New Republic. Wired News's report to its readers was based on the results of an investigation by Penenberg and his students at NYU.

Gelf first noticed that Wired News might be nearing publication of Penenberg's investigation Monday afternoon, when a search for his name on the site yielded a snippet of an article apparently about the inquiry. That disappeared from search results, but it returned later Monday, and by repeatedly searching the site, Gelf was able to piece together the article before it disappeared again from search results. It's possible the article will be edited further before it is published. It's unclear what was happening, but the most likely explanation is that the contents of the article were added to the site's search index before the article itself was published on the site. The snippet links to a URL for the article that wasn't yet active as of the time of this writing: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,67428,00.html

(UPDATE: The Wired report ran Monday night at the above address. There was one major difference with the early version Gelf found: Penenberg questioned sources in 24 of Delio's articles, not 23.)

For example, Gelf searched for Penenberg and got this: ".....en by Delio (under the names Michelle Delio and Michelle Finley) since 2000. In April, we assigned journalism professor and Wired News columnist Adam Penenberg to review recent articles written by Delio for Wired News. Penenberg and his staff of graduate students at New York University reviewed 160 ......" A search for words toward the end of the sentence yielded this apparently overlapping section: "d 160 articles, largely from 2004, but some earlier stories were also checked. Penenberg provided Wired News with a list of 23 stories that contained sources he could not confirm (links are included at the end of this story). Penenberg's report to Wired News can be downloaded here. [[link tk]] Delio... " and so on.

Delio, who according to her staff bio is a 36-year-old living in New York and former editor of Outlaw Biker magazine, wrote over 700 articles for Wired News. She is still listed on staff, but has not written an article for the site since March 23, one day after Gelf started investigating some of her sources used in Wired News stories (see here and here). In a review of several articles, Gelf found a disturbing trend: We were not able to locate many of the sources quoted by Delio, and some of her alleged interviewees didn't recall talking to her or saying the statement she quoted.

After granting an initial interview, Delio stopped replying to our inquiries and declined to provide evidence verifying these sources. "Delio, in communications with Penenberg and Wired News, stands by her reporting and the existence and accuracy of her sources," according to the preliminary Wired News report.

"Most of Delio's sources were in fact located and confirmed by Penenberg," Wired News wrote. The unconfirmed sources affect the content of these stories to varying degrees," citing, for instance, an unconfirmed quote in this article and saying it "does not materially affect the rest of the story." Yet in four of the 160 articles, Wired News saw troubling patterns similar to what Gelf had found in its own inquiry.

• "Spyware on My Machine? So What?" Wired News: "Penenberg cannot confirm any of the quotes from the users in the story."

• "Searching for Life Amid Rubble" Wired News: "Penenberg was unable to trace several of the people quoted, and an apocryphal survival anecdote is included (which other reporters apparently wrote about at the time as well)."

• "Meet the Nigerian E-Mail Grifters" Wired News: "This article is based completely on sources whom Penenberg was unable to identify."

• "Nasty Malware Fouls PCs With Porn" Wired News: "The anecdote at the beginning of this article features a family Penenberg was unable to contact."

Earlier Monday, Wired News temporarily removed more than 500 of Delio's articles from the search index, including all the stories she wrote after last September 10 (they had returned as of this writing). Apparently, that was part of an effort to update some of her work to reflect the results of Penenberg's inquiry. The website said in the preliminary version of its report to readers, "Wired News is not retracting any of these stories. Rather, we are appending notes to the stories, indicating what we have been unable to confirm about them and editing them, as noted, where appropriate. By keeping these stories posted and clearly marked, we hope that our readers can help identify any sources whom we cannot track down."

That's admirably transparent, in contrast with the response of other publications that have found problems with some of Delio's work. Delio's writing first came under suspicion in March after two of her articles for the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's magazine, Technology Review, were disputed by their subject, Hewlett-Packard, which claimed that an anonymous source she described within the company couldn't exist based on her description of the person. Since that time, the Technology Review has removed five more Delio articles from its website after an investigation found that in each of the five articles, there were "one or more sources whose existence and/or quotes we could not verify," and has also removed Delio's three other articles for the site. And Infoworld removed statements from seven unverifiable sources in four articles written by Delio.

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of the Technology Review, told Gelf on Monday that he removed Delio's articles because he fundamentally doubted their underlying veracity, not just some of their quotes. "Wired claims that the general facts of the stories are by and large accurate, and that the quotations functioned as local color," Pontin said. "I think readers must read Delio's stories and judge for themselves. For myself, as editor-in-chief of Technology Review, I felt strongly that when the stories are so compromised by fabrication and inaccuracy, I'd prefer not to publish the journalist at all."

Why, Gelf asked, not keep the stories available with an editor's note attached, explaining the findings of inaccuracy? "As journalists, if we have any function at all, it is to accurately bear witness to facts of the world as we find it," Pontin said. "I choose not to publish stories I know to be inaccurate if not entirely fabricated." Pontin added by email, "Given the questions about Delio's reporting—and the fact that three of the 10 stories she wrote for us were demonstrably fabricated—we choose not to publish any of her writing."

Penenberg, Wired News Managing Editor Marty Cortinas and Delio didn't immediately return Gelf's requests for comment Monday.

The AP learned about some of the Delio inquiry's results Monday and published a brief article (via Washington Post), apparently after Gelf first published its report that the inquiry was near completion. The AP attributed its findings to "one person familiar with the report's conclusions" and quoted from an email Delio sent to Wired News executives.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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