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April 19, 2005

Two Editor's Notes and One Correction Point to Fabricated News

Editor's Notes in the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times about fabricated news reports which ran in those newspapers, and an apology by a Detroit Free Press sports columnist about his own fabrication, highlight the importance of careful media monitoring.

The Editor's Note in the April 15 Globe states:

Editor's Note : An article by a freelance writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Wednesday's Globe said that the season's hunt for baby seals off Newfoundland had begun the previous day. In fact, the hunt did not begin that day; it was delayed by bad weather, and is scheduled to begin today, weather permitting. The article included details of the day's hunt as if it had taken place and without attribution or other sourcing, as if the writer had witnessed the scene personally. Details included the number of hunters, a description of the scene, and the approximate age of the cubs. The author's failure to accurately report the status of the hunt and her fabrication of details at the scene are clear violations of the Globe's journalistic standards. Because the freelancer was not reporting from the scene, Globe editors should have demanded attribution for any details she provided about the hunt itself. The story should not have been published in the Globe, and the Globe has discontinued use of the freelancer.

And in today's L.A. Times:

Editor's Note: On March 31, The Times published a correction of four errors in a March 29 article about controversies arising from fraternity hazing at Cal State Chico. At the same time, editors began a full review of the story, which was published on the front page of the California section. Based on that inquiry, which included a visit to Chico by a Times editor, the paper has concluded that the article fell far short of Times standards.

Beyond the specific errors, the newspaper's inquiry found that the methods used in reporting the story were substandard. The quotations from anonymous sources and from two named sources, a Mike Rodriguez and a Paul Greene, could not be verified.

Additional inaccuracies found during the investigation include the following:

* In describing a hazing death this year, the article said that the victim died after drinking five gallons of water from a "rubber bladder bag." The Butte County district attorney reported that the amount of water exceeded five gallons and that it came from a plastic jug, not a bladder bag.

* The story also reported that the victim was alone at the time of his death. The D.A. reported that this was not the case.

* The article attributed to "medical examiners" the idea that the victim may have experienced a moment of euphoria shortly before his death. That belief has been expressed by the victim's father, who told the Chico Enterprise Record that he based it on his own research. Butte County's district attorney said it does not appear in any medical reports related to the current case.

* The article said that the parents of Adrian Heideman, a hazing victim who died in 2000, showed their son's day planner to hazing expert Hank Nuwer. Nuwer informed The Times' readers' representative that he was not shown Heideman's day planner by his parents; he heard it described by Heideman's father over the phone.

Separate from the March 29 article, a review of an earlier story on the same subject revealed another error. On March 5, The Times reported that eight fraternity members had been charged with involuntary manslaughter. In fact, eight were charged with hazing, and four of them were also charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The writer of both articles, Eric Slater, has been dismissed from the staff.

And in the April 7 Detroit Free Press, a correction, as well as this:

... You can't write that something happened that didn't, even if it's just who sat in the stands. Perhaps, it seems a small detail to you -- the players still love their teams, they are still nostalgic, they simply decided not to go after the column had been filed -- but details are the backbone of journalism, and planning to be somewhere is not the same as being there.

So I owe you and the Free Press an apology, and you have it right here. ...

The following day, Free Press Published and Editor Carole Leigh Hutton followed up with a letter to readers. It states:

Dear readers,

As a newspaper, our credibility is paramount.

On Thursday, we reported that a Mitch Albom column in Sunday's editions misled readers by saying that two ex-Michigan State basketball players were at Saturday night's Final Four game.

They were not. The column was written Friday, for a section that was printed before the game was played.

Albom was wrong to report that the athletes were there when the game had not yet been played. And the Free Press was wrong to publish it.

Albom has built an unparalleled reputation in 20 years as a Free Press columnist. Still, the Free Press is undertaking a thorough review of the situation, as is our policy.

We will report on that investigation just as we do with other investigations you read about in the Free Press. ...

For more, see "Simple fact-checking saves newspapers a lot of grief," by the Salt Lake Tribune's Readers' Advocate.

And to read about Middle East fabrications, click here and here.

Posted by GI at April 19, 2005 03:42 PM