Unnamed sources? Journalists should teach readers why they were used

On Thursday, four journalists for CNN reported:

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

CATEGORY: JournalismInformation. Indicates. Associates. Communicated. Suspected. Operatives. Possibly. Coordinate. Information. US officials.

Huh? Could this lede be any more vague? This lede is all may have — which leaves open the possibility of may not have.

The story, reported by Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, and Shimon Prokupecz, contains unnamed sources in 10 of the story’s 18 paragraphs. The FBI director is named, but only in reference to stories reported earlier. White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov are named, but only in chiding the findings of the story. Two paragraphs near the end of the story contain no sources and appear to be the conclusions of the reporters.

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Bad journalism: it isn’t just a Manti Te’o thing. Remember Columbine?

Manti Te'o blarneyAs we try to unravel the whole Manti Te’o/”Lennay Kekua” mystery – is she dead? Is she alive? Does she exist? Was Te’o in on it or is he the biggest rube in America? – “sports journalists” (one of my favorite oxymorons, btw) are taking a right kicking, and deservedly so. Everybody out there who reported on the heartbreaking dead girlfriend story is now having to account for the willingness to push the narrative even once troubling discrepancies began to arise. Things like there was no death certificate. And Stanford never heard of her. And the police had no accident records. And shouldn’t there be hospital records? And wait – you’ve never met her? And so on.

I’m damned if I can figure out what actually happened with Te’o and “Kekua,” but there’s little question that an industry full of sports reporters got punk’d, and it happened because they simply failed to be, you know, reporters. The worst part is that this isn’t just a sports problem. The US is beset on all sides by journalistic malfeasance (witness the rise of the “post-truth” era in political coverage we saw last year) and we’ve built up a certain unhealthy tolerance to it.

I feel like I’ve seen this dynamic before. The specifics of the Te’o debacle – media organizations enthusiastically running with a story as full of holes as the Notre Dame D line in the BCS Championship game – reminds me of another instance of reporting malpractice a few years back.

You probably remember Columbine. I know I do. The tragic school shootings, which happened less than 15 miles from where I now sit, left a permanent scar on my community, and I think many of us who aren’t even Colorado natives took it personally, as if our own children had been targeted. In times of distress, we naturally rely on the institutions upon which our society rests: family, government, the press, and for a huge majority here, the church. Unfortunately, our institutions let us down. The police response at the scene was worse than useless. The official investigation was a travesty. And while the local Christianity industry did yeoman’s work colonizing the city’s grief for its own purposes (one local minster, the Rev. Don Marxhausen, went so far as to say he felt like he’d been “hit over the head with Jesus”), the local press committed the ultimate journalistic sin: it lied intentionally.

I wrote about this back in 2009, as we observed the 10th anniversary of the shootings. As I said at the time, “the mainstream press values the narrative above the facts.”

They were goths! It was the Trenchcoat Mafia! They were targeting jocks, blacks and Christians! Cassie Bernall said yes!

Lie. Lie. Lie, lie, lie. And damnable, intentional lie. Local and national “reporters” could have been outperformed by monkeys with Ouija boards.

Not that the run-of-the-mill press bumbling came as any real surprise – journalistic malpractice is well-known in Colorado. But ineptitude is one thing. Outright, overt, premeditated lies are quite another, and that’s exactly what both of Denver’s mainstream papers – the Denver Post and the recently-defunct Rocky Mountain News – did when they ran the “Cassie Bernall said yes” story as fact. They knew, by their own admission, that it was false, so why did they lie? Well, the lie seemed to be providing comfort to a grieving city.

Take that as the foundational operating principle for a free press and see where it leads…

Thanks to reporting of Westword and Dave Cullen, then doing Pulitzer-worthy work for Salon, we now know the truth about a great many things, including the “She Said Yes” myth of Cassie Bernall. As the story linked above explains, the papers continued to report the Christian martyrdom story as fact for days after they learned it to be false. The famous exchange between Bernall and Eric Harris never happened, but the myth made for better copy, so they went with it.

I’ve never been willing to believe a word the Post prints without independent corroboration since.

Where does it end? In a riotously deregulated world of 24/7 “information,” newspapers, broadcasters and online media wage open war for share. Cash is the ends. At best, truth is a means. There is no meaningful sense of public interest anymore, not since Reagan’s FCC infamously declared back in 1982 that “the public interest is what they public is interested in.” So you emphasize facts and truth if, and only if, they make business sense. If the bottom line is better served by not looking too closely into the details of a good story, by embellishing for effect, or simply making shit up, then that’s what you do.

In other words, it doesn’t end. Not until our patience wears out and we begin insisting that reporters actually do some heavy lifting, that they ask the really hard questions. If our nation’s press is out of practice, we can even do this in baby steps. Start by asking the obvious questions. If you report that someone is dead, make sure they’re actually dead. For that matter, make sure they exist. If the evidence is sketchy, keep digging.

Also, what if we cared more about real dead girls than fake ones? Especially when they’re dead as a result of being intimidated (and sexually assaulted) by the football team.

Not only do we need to vent our frustration on the half-assed media organizations that are lying to us (by not watching, by boycotting their sponsors, etc.), we might also ask our lawmakers and regulators to reconsider the political decisions, bought and paid for by wealthy media interests, that enabled this mess in the first place. Let’s revisit the Public Interest Standard. The Fairness Doctrine. Tax structures that force family newspapers to sell to corporations when the scion dies. Broadcast ownership rules, including things like cross-media ownership and the old radio duopoly rules.

I’m not saying we have to turn the clock back to 1979, but a more productive future might begin with at least a thoughtful look at how things worked in the years before we lost our way and began auctioning off our collective soul to the most outrageous and irresponsible bidders.

Mr. Booth goes to the theater, ESPN FC fails to mention that assassination thing: sports "journalism" strikes again

Chicharito celebrates offside winner

It’s no secret to Chelsea fans that the sporting press, such as it is, does not love us overmuch. Time and again, whether we’re reading a match report or an  editorial “analysis” or listening to in-game commentary, we’re confronted with “journalists” who seem on the verge of bursting into song every time something bad happens to our side.

Fine. I can deal with this, and in a way it’s a badge of honor. Nobody bothers working up much in the way of snark or venom if you’re bottom of the table, do they? Still, as a guy who has been a journalism professor, it galls me at a professional level to see the media simply ignore the facts. Continue reading

The Good, the Bad and the Butt-Ugly: NYU names its 100 outstanding journalists in the US in the last century

You know how every so often somebody will publish a list of the greatest rock bands in history? Those usually make for interesting reading. Beatles, check. Rolling Stones, check. Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix Experience, U2, The Who, Nirvana, Celine Dion, REM… Wait, what? Back up.

Always happens. You have your obvious picks, you have some fresh blood that may be just controversial enough to spark conversation (and site traffic), and then you have your moments of pure barking idiocy that completely annihilate the credibility of the whole enterprise. As it turns out, the same thing happens when prestigious university faculties go about honoring the greatest journalists of the past century. Continue reading

Nota Bene #119: Think! It Ain't Illegal Yet

“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” Who said it? Continue reading

Why science journalism is suffering

There are a number of problems with science journalism today, and they tend to feed on each other. Decades ago, when the newspaper industry had advertising-driven profit margins in the 10-25% range, newspaper companies were bought by conglomerates that wanted those sky-high profits. Advertising revenues have since plummeted largely as a result of web advertising, especially sites like Craig’s List. But those same conglomerates continue to expect sky high margins even though revenues have fallen. Because the conglomerates are unwilling to accept lower short-term profits, corporate managers instead force editors to lay off journalists.

In every business, the first people laid off are those who just plain suck at their job, cost the most, and are the least flexible. In the case of newspapers, the most expensive and least flexible people tend to be the oldest journalists and editors with the highest salaries, the specialists who produce little day-to-day volume but cost a lot, and those who are unwilling or unable to transition from one beat to another. Continue reading

Nota Bene #99: Heed the Peace Gnome

“You just pick up a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music.” Who said it? Continue reading

A ripped-off journalist wishes Rupert well in his crusade against free content

by Christopher Michel

If I could, I’d shake Rupert Murdoch’s hand.

Although Murdoch is not exactly my favorite person in the media, his efforts to curb the parasites killing the hosts … I mean, the Web sites providing free news content … have gained some headway.

Google has announced it will offer some concessions in the ongoing battle of Web sites reposting work produced by other news agencies. Now, news agencies will be able to control the number of articles Internet users can view for free.

Thank the journalism gods. Continue reading

Why American media has such a signal-to-noise problem, pt. 2

Part 2 of a series; Previously: What Bell Labs and French Intellectuals Can Tell Us About Cronkite and Couric

The Signal-to-Noise Journey of American Media

The 20th Century represented a Golden Age of Institutional Journalism. The Yellow Journalism wars of the late 19th Century gave way to a more responsible mode of reporting built on ethical and professional codes that encouraged fairness and “objectivity.” (Granted, these concepts, like their bastard cousin “balance,” are not wholly unproblematic. Still, they represented a far better way of conducting journalism than we had seen before.) It’s probably not idealizing too much to assert that reporting in the Cronkite Era, for instance, was characterized by a commitment to rise above partisanship and manipulation. The journalist was expected to hold him/herself to a higher standard and to serve the public interest. These professionals – and I have met a few who are more than worthy of the title – believed they had a duty to search for the facts and to present them in a fashion that was as free of bias as possible.

In other words, their careers, like that of Claude Shannon, were devoted to maximizing the signal in the system – the system here being the “marketplace of ideas.” Continue reading

Jon Stewart, Jim Cramer and the rampaging cowards of journalism

First, just in case you haven’t seen it, please review the video (in three parts).

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CU, Max Karson, JonBenét Ramsey and a sad case of catfight journalism: Westword ought to be ashamed

The header on the story reads this way: CU’s Campus Press Fights for Independence.

The subhead is equally on-point: A contentious faculty meeting points to independence for CU-Boulder’s student newspaper — but at what cost?

But at that point the journalism train jumps the tracks, because the first couple grafs eschew any consideration of the alleged story itself in favor of a gratuitous drive-by snarking from reporter Michael Roberts.

University of Colorado at Boulder journalism professor Michael Tracey has never previously suffered from camera shyness. Continue reading


It’s fair to ask whether a college kid should have to wash dishes in the dining
hall to pay his tuition when his college has a billion dollars in the bank.

— Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, “the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees tax policy, [who] has written to the nation’s 135 leading universities, asking them to explain what they do with their tax-free endowments“; according to The New York Times, “Last year a record 76 American colleges passed the $1 billion mark in total endowments”; March 18.

I liken N.C.L.B. to a mile race. Under N.C.L.B., students are tested rigorously every tenth of a mile. But nobody keeps track as to whether they cross the finish line.

— Bob Wise, a former West Virginia governor who is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group that seeks to improve schools; according to The New York Times, “… many states use an inflated graduation rate for federal reporting requirements under the No Child Left Behind law and a different one at home. As a result, researchers say, federal figures obscure a dropout epidemic so severe that only about 70 percent of the one million American students who start ninth grade each year graduate four years later”; March 20.
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So why are gasoline prices going up?

Today oil hit $110 a barrel and the national average cost of regular per gallon reached $3.246.

Now, I’m not an economist; I only play one at S&R. But like most of you in the U.S., I watch those gasoline prices ratchet higher and higher, and I’m ticked off. How come they’re going up so fast? How come they’re so high? And why isn’t someone explaining this to me?

I wish the press would spend more time telling me why prices are climbing. Yes, the press appropriately stresses the consequences of record gasoline prices on those who cannot absorb the increases. But it too often fails to point to the bad guys (we all need someone to blame, right?). Somebody’s gotta take the fall for this, many of us think.
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What journalists can do: The AP's water story

You probably haven’t heard of Jeff Donn, Martha Mendoza and Justin Pritchard. But because of them, you may be thinking twice about the water you drink — especially if you live in Philadelphia.

Mr. Donn, Ms. Mendoza, and Mr. Pritchard wrote and reported the story that reveals “[a] vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.” (Elsewhere at S&R, my colleague Martin discusses what this all means.)

The three reporters did extensive work on this story:

Members of the AP National Investigative Team reviewed hundreds of scientific reports, analyzed federal drinking water databases, visited environmental study sites and treatment plants and interviewed more than 230 officials, academics and scientists. They also surveyed the nation’s 50 largest cities and a dozen other major water providers, as well as smaller community water providers in all 50 states.

Journalists broke this story. Not a government agency. Not a corporation. Not a whistleblower. Not a blogger. Well-trained, experienced journalists did — with the backing of a news organization willing to dedicate resources to do for the public what governments and corporations can’t, won’t or don’t.
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One letter can highlight hypocrisy; more letters should follow

Daniel Kester of Williamsville, N.Y., believes some actions of his representative in Congress are hypocritical. So, fed up and using information available online, he sat down and penned a letter to the editor of The Buffalo News:

Last year, Exxon-Mobil made a profit of more than $40 billion. This is the highest profit any American company has ever made. While I congratulate Exxon on this achievement, it does make me wonder why my congressman, Tom Reynolds, found it necessary to vote to continue to give tax breaks to Exxon and other oil companies (House Bill 5351). At the same time, Reynolds voted against tax credits for wind, solar and other alternative energy sources that could actually help reduce global warming.

I can see the sense in giving tax breaks to struggling Western New York companies. But tax breaks for Exxon? What was he thinking? This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that he has received more than $165,000 in contributions from the oil and gas industry, would it?

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I believe my current participation could be a distraction.

— major league baseball pitcher and accused steroids and HGH cheat Roger Clemens, in withdrawing from a scheduled appearance at an “event, which takes place largely at Disney Hollywood Studios, and lets fans interact with athletes and ESPN personalities and watch live ESPN programming”; Feb. 20.

I’m very excited about watching this game. I do want to thank your coaches. Thanks for coaching. Thanks for teaching people the importance of teamwork. I like baseball a lot, so thanks for teaching them how to play baseball, too.

— from President Bush’s remarks at a “tee ball” game between the Little Dragons and the Little Saints at Ghana International School in Accra, Ghana; Feb. 20.
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'Penny' press redux: a new business model for journalism?

Edward Wasserman, writing in the Feb. 18 Miami Herald, makes an obvious but still unsettling point about the news business:

The nearly two-century-old marriage between consumer advertising and journalism is on the rocks.

Prof. Wasserman, the Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, recounts that two hundred years from the penny press to the difficulties that “new media” have with a business model that presumes people will pay for news — and therefore advertisers will pay to park themselves in front of those eyeballs. But, says Prof. Wasserman:

That era is now ending, not because the public no longer needs news or because people mistrust news any more than they always have — but because new technologies are churning out better ways to reach customers who are shopping for cars, jobs or homes.

For two centuries, advertising has supported journalism. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press — but does not guarantee profitability. That news organizations must achieve without government support.
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AP story on MRAP delay shows need for good journalism, whistleblowers

An Associated Press story about a leaked internal study that accuses the Marine Corps of delays in providing mine-resistant vehicles to its forces in Iraq provides ample reason why good journalism is a social and political must, government whistleblowers ought to be fully protected from retribution, and journalists should not be compelled to identify anonymous sources.

First, the news:

Hundreds of U.S. Marines have been killed or injured by roadside bombs in Iraq because Marine Corps bureaucrats refused an urgent request in 2005 from battlefield commanders for blast-resistant vehicles, an internal military study concludes. Continue reading

It's hack 'n' whack time at The Times: 100 newsroom cuts planned

It is a good time to be a deceitful politician or a pay-for-favors lobbyist or a crooked corporate CEO. That’s because the profession that is charged in a democracy with ferreting out such miscreants is losing some members of its “A” team.

Despite its ills and errors, The New York Times remains the best newspaper in America. But the business model to which the industry remains fanatically obsessed — maximize shareholder income at the expense of the quality of its product — is about to slip a knife into the muscle and bone of The Times‘ reporting staff.

The Times will trim its newsroom staff of 1,332 by about 100:

The cuts will be achieved “by not filling jobs that go vacant, by offering buyouts, and if necessary by layoffs,” the executive editor, Bill Keller, said. The more people who accept buyouts, he said, “the smaller the prospect of layoffs, but we should brace ourselves for the likelihood that there will be some layoffs.” He said, “We intend to move quickly, to get any cuts past us so that we do not spend a year bleeding slowly.”

More than any other set of job cuts in the news biz, these are the most troubling. Like it or not, The Times has held fast to its reputation for credibility, accuracy and fearlessness for more than a century. Yes, it’s often too liberal. Yes, Judith Miller’s pro-Iraq reporting left some slime on the masthead. Yes, The Washington Post beat it on Watergate. And yes, The Times can be irritatingly patrician and arrogant. But it’s ability to latch onto a story and extract every last dram of news is unparalleled in American journalism.
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It's -30- for the Cincy Post: Good news or bad?

When a newspaper dies, “a voice is stilled.” That was the headline in the Cincinnati Post Dec. 30, the day before the newspaper’s presses were silenced. Corporate owner E.W. Scripps closed both the Cincinnati Post and its cousin, the Kentucky Post.

In their day, they were great, ornery, cantankerous papers fearing and favoring none:

Vance Trimble, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Kentucky Post in the 1960s and ’70s, explain[ed] his newspaper’s editorial philosophy this way: “Everybody could get in the paper, and nobody could stay out.” [emphasis added]

That applied to Mr. Trimble, too. When he was arrested on a drunk-driving beef, the paper ran a photo of the editor behind bars the next day. Now, that was a newspaper I can admire.

But should this be RIP, Cincy Post — or good riddance?
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