August 29, 2006

When Reporters Make News

To move a story along, one journalist files a complaint to the government, then writes about it. Plus: Salon can look at child porn, after all; "Big Bill" and other inventions from Norway; this Eddie Johnson did not molest that child; and other enlightening and entertaining media corrections.

Carl Bialik

Paul Antonson
Every week, more or less, Gelf combs through media corrections for the funniest and most enlightening. Sometimes journalism reveals more in its mishaps than in its success. Gelf makes mistakes, too, and when we do, we'll disclose them here. The text in italics is Gelf's; everything else is a direct quote from the publication.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Southeast Missourian, August 24: A lapse in journalistic ethics by a Southeast Missourian reporter has raised serious issues about the newspaper's coverage of the eligibility of a Scott County Central School Board member. [etc.]
The reporter, Mark Bliss, initially reported on the board member's potential ineligibility in June; when it emerged that formal complaint was needed to proceed, Bliss filed the complaint, then wrote about the board member's resulting resignation (complete coverage of the residency eligibility firestorm here). Reporters sometimes are tempted to make news on slow days, but Bliss didn't tell his editors, or readers, about his enterprising journalism.

Protected Porn

Salon, August 25: Salon published an opinion piece headlined "Why I Need to See Child Porn" by Debbie Nathan on Aug. 25. The story argued that under child pornography laws, Nathan and other journalists and researchers had no protection from prosecution if they viewed visual depictions of child pornography, even inadvertently, in the course of their work. In fact, federal law does offer some legal protection for journalists and other researchers. An "affirmative defense" may exist that would protect such work under certain circumstances, and the opinion asserted by Nathan that her work, and the work of other journalists, would constitute a violation of the law was inaccurate. Salon regrets the error and has removed the article from the site.
Gelf never approves of wholesale removal of articles; readers of the initial article can't return to it and re-evaluate it in light of the correction. The article isn't alive in Google cache, but it lives on, uncorrected, on Nexis. Incidentally, the article suggested another correction, for an article in another publication:

Which brings us to another journalist, the Times' [Kurt] Eichenwald. In his Aug. 20 piece, "With Child Sex Sites on the Run, Nearly Nude Photos Hit the Web," he writes that he examined "more than 200 sites" that sound exactly like the one illegal URL I found. Two hundred! That's real research, and I commend him for it. But did Eichenwald have the legal right to do the work? No. The Times notes in a box accompanying his article that "United States law makes it a crime to purchase, download or view child pornography, unless the images are promptly reported to authorities and no images are copied or retained. The Times complied with the law."

Trouble is, there is no law for the Times to comply with. Contrary to the box, nothing says that if you report and you don't copy or retain, you're safe. Eichenwald admitted as much in an e-mail he sent me when I pointed out that the box is wrong. Its language, he wrote, "was terrible," and was added by editors after he signed off on the article.

It was, perhaps, exactly this contention that led Salon to realize the initial premise of its article was wrong. Of course, without full disclosure we don't know. Speaking of online publications simply yanking suspect articles, Forbes.com initially did that with an article arguing that men shouldn't marry career women, then restored the article with a rebuttal. Here's Slate's Jack Shafer on the controversy.

'Big Bill' Speaks Out

Associated Press, August 7: A Norwegian journalist has admitted he fabricated interviews with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and talk show host Oprah Winfrey, media reports said Monday. [etc.]
Reporter Bjoern Benkow pretended he was sitting next to "Big Bill" on a flight and got an impromptu interview; Microsoft Norway shot down the report but the Swedish tabloid daily Aftonbladet initially stood by Benkow. When he admitted to the fraud, a newspaper spokesman said, "We have been fooled, and thereby we fooled our readers."

Fun With PhotoShop

Reuters, August 7: Reuters withdrew all 920 photographs by a freelance Lebanese photographer from its database on Monday after an urgent review of his work showed he had altered two images from the conflict between Israel and the armed group Hizbollah. [etc.]
Adnan Hajj's doctored photos exaggerated Israel's aggression, by adding smoke to one scene, and flares from Israeli planes to another. The conservative blog Little Green Footballs helped uncover the deception.
More on this controversy: On Slate, Jim Lewis argues why news photos can't be trusted; the Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten calls for a wider investigation of photos from Lebanon and blames the news agency's cost-cutting for the mess; the Raleigh News & Observer's Ted Vaden examines a goof of slightly less import in his paper, regarding the color of Tiger Woods's cap; and San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Don Asmussen riffs on the Reuters error.

Do You Condemn This Mistake? No.

Washington Times, August 3: Yesterday's editorial, "Rep. Dingell and Hezbollah," unintentionally omitted Mr. Dingell's full answer to an interviewer's question asking if he was against Hezbollah. [etc.]
Here's a bit from the editorial:

Here's what Mr. Dingell had to say to a reporter in Detroit the other day during a television program: "I don't take sides for or against Hezbollah; I don't take sides for or against Israel." When asked if he really wasn't "against Hezbollah," Mr. Dingell replied, "No."

Part of what's behind Mr. Dingell's appalling refusal to condemn Hezbollah are the tens of thousands of Muslims, mostly Shi'ites, living in his Michigan district.

But Dingell did go on to condemn Hezbollah; here's how his answer continued after "no": "I happen to be -- I happen to be against violence, I think the United States has to bring resolution to this matter. Now, I condemn Hezbollah as does everybody else, for the violence."
Nonetheless, the Times goes on, in its clarification, to write, "We regret not having been aware of and thus not including Mr. Dingell's complete answer in yesterday's editorial. However, we stand by our conclusion that Mr. Dingell's refusal to denounce Hezbollah is appalling."
The Times may have gotten its incomplete quote from the conservative blog Power Line, which was criticized by the liberal blog, Think Progress. Power Line responded:

The excerpt was emailed to me by a reader; I considered the possibility that it might be misleading because of something that came before or after. I concluded, however, that Dingell had plainly declared himself neutral between the state of Israel and the terrorist group Hezbollah, and that nothing that preceded or followed could change that disgusting fact. The longer excerpt posted by the loons at "Think Progress" confirms that I was right.

Will this be Jason Williams's fate in 20 years?

Chicago Tribune, August 10: We made an inadvertent but hurtful error Tuesday night in an effort to get as much news as possible into Wednesday's final edition of the Tribune sports section, and we would like to apologize to Eddie Johnson, his family and friends, and our readers. [etc.]
The Trib mistook former NBA player Eddie Johnson, a Chicago native "who was distinguished as much by good citizenship and charity work," with the other former NBA player Eddie Johnson, who "has been in and out of trouble with the law since he quit playing in 1987" and was recently arrested and charged with child molestation. The paper accompanied an Associated Press article about the arrest with a photo of the wrong Johnson.
The resulting correction/apology—which is no longer online, but was preserved by Regret the Error—oddly stresses the paper's effort to get news in by deadline, which would be like the cops apologizing for a false arrest while emphasizing that they were trying to catch crooks. The apology begins, "Haste to make deadline is no excuse for putting incorrect information in a newspaper." Then why mention it?
Deadspin points out that others besides the Trib made the same mistake. The falsely identified Johnson told the East Valley Tribune, "This is why athletes have so many problems with the media. They don’t do their homework. They don’t bother to check facts before they write things or get on the radio and talk."
Also in the Trib this month: An article that was reported two days earlier by the Daily Illini. The college paper's reporter complained to Romenesko that he wasn't credited.

Botched Chronology

Raleigh News & Observer, August 10: This report on the Durham lacrosse case Sunday contained an error involving the timing of a discussion between District Attorney Mike Nifong and Investigator Michelle Soucie. On April 4, Nifong instructed Soucie to nail down what the accuser in the case had done on the day prior to the alleged rape. That was nearly two weeks before the first two indictments in the case. This error changes the implication of the first five paragraphs of the story: that the conversation between Nifong and Soucie was an example of the words and actions of police and prosecutors outpacing the facts in the file. The error does not affect the accuracy of the remainder of the story, which reported gaps between the prosecution's words and its evidence.
The paper's Ted Vaden explained how six editors failed to challenge the reporter about the chronology.

Thanks for Sharing

Daily Iowan, July 10: We here at The Daily Iowan recently learned that the July 6 column "Minimum wage no-brainer" was largely plagiarized from a report released June 29 by the Democratic Policy Committee. On behalf of The Daily Iowan staff, I sincerely apologize and deeply regret that such a piece appeared in our newspaper. Per staff policy, the harshest possible action has been taken against this employee, and John Heineman will no longer work for this publication. We performed an investigation of all his previous work since joining the paper in the fall of 2005. This search revealed no prior cases of plagiarism.
Plagiarism also recently has afflicted the Philadelphia Daily News and Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

David Goldenberg contributed to this article.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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