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Friday, December 9, 2011

Ethics 102: The deception

Posted by on Fri, Dec 9, 2011 at 11:55 AM

When people hear about an egregious ethical breach at a newspaper, magazine or other media outlet, they usually wonder, "How did that get past an editor?"

Granted, sometimes the editor is asleep at the wheel. But occasionally, despite the editor's best efforts, a false, fictionalized or otherwise erroneous story is published because the reporter is very devious, even pathologically so.

Seven or eight years ago, when I was editor of the San Antonio Current, a freelancer pitched a story about graduation rates at a local public high school (another bedeviling education story, dammit). Supposedly the high school was overstating its numbers and far fewer kids were graduating than it had been publicly reporting.

First, a word about this freelancer (whose name I have also forgotten—I, of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind): She was ostensibly a Ph.D. candidate at a top university, an accomplishment that should have exposed her to the standards and rigors of academic integrity similar to those of journalism. With those bona fides, I should rest easy, yes? Lesson No. 1: Never rest, let alone rest easy.

I told her to investigate the rumor and debrief me. Weeks later I received a draft of the story, which at the time I thought I dutifully prosecuted: "How do you know this?" "What documentation do you have?" "What's your attribution for this statement?" "How many times did you call this person?" And on and on.

My instinct told me something was amiss, but she had an authoritative, reasonable answer to each question. Although she said the school had declined to comment and provide their own numbers, her data and supporting information had come from other sources inside the school with deep knowledge of the situation.

So, and my heart sinks as I write this because I know now where and why I erred, we published the story. As it turns out, we did get one thing right: The name of the school. The rest of it was bullshit: the data, the conclusions, etc. The school called me, rightfully outraged, and I told the officials I would look into their claims and, if true, try to unravel what happened. In my forensics on the story, I learned several deeply troubling facts—and I relate them here to the best of my memory:

1) The numbers represented only part of a larger data set; the assertion the school had overstated the graduation rates was false.

2) The reason the school didn't comment or provide the data in a timely fashion was because the reporter did not identify herself as a journalist when she contacted the officials. She claimed she was a citizen, a grave misrepresentation. Not only is that ethically out of bounds, it was also self-defeating. Members of the media usually have their open records requests filled—and their calls returned—before those of the general public. Had she stated she was a reporter, the data would have been provided, the calls returned. And the data would have shown that her theory was poppycock, which, of course, would have killed the story and her premise.

3) And most outlandish, she had enlisted her friends and colleagues to call the school with questions for the piece. None of those people stated they were researching a story; nor did I authorize her to essentially subcontract her reporting work to people (non-journalists, all of them) I didn't know.

What happened next? Well, thankfully we weren't sued. I apologized verbally and in writing to the school and district officials. I wrote a lengthy retraction and apology in the paper (I unsuccessfully tried to find it online so I could link to it here) naming the reporter, explaining what happened and why. And the freelancer got a verbal ass-kicking and was forever banned from writing for us.

In retrospect, I should have called the school myself, not only to see why officials wouldn't comment but also to understand why they had not turned over the numbers. I should have listened to my gut, because it was picking up on cues that my logical mind was not.

But at the time, I was a rather green and, yes, naive editor; my previous editorship was at a much smaller paper. I couldn't imagine someone would really falsify information and misrepresent herself. Now I know better, and I never rest easy.

Now playing: Galaxy 500, "On Fire"

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