Saturday, August 27, 2005

Journalism 101: verify your facts

From LGF, this wonderful little tale of a college newspaper that published stories for a year and a half on the tribulations of a little girl whose only living parent, her father, was sent overseas to fight in Iraq leaving her in the care of family friends. Human interest stories and letters about the impact of such events on the life of an adorable little girl getting dealt a lousy hand in life. The stories are read tear-jerkers that came to a culmination 2 weeks ago when the staff of the paper was advised that her father had been killed in Iraq.

The only problem: every word of the story was a lie.

The Daily Egyptian is the paper of the Southern Illinois University and the tale has 1 inescapable conclusion. The reporters, editors, and faculty supervisors accepted the story of hardship and the woes that followed at face value and never once in over a year took the time to verify the facts. That's not reporting, kids, that's stenography. That's taking notes in a class. That's transcribing. The front page of the DE at least calls it like it is:

::::::::We had been duped.

Not only was he not in the military, we could not verify he existed at all. Suddenly, everything about this story was in question.

Over the course of a year and a half, we published news stories, columns and letters to the editor about Dan Kennings and his daughter Kodee. All of them were rich in real human emotion, and all provided moving details in the life of a young girl trying to live her life without her parents. They portrayed a precocious child, fiercely proud of her father's military service.

Each one of these stories, columns and letters contained an essential inaccuracy -- but when we published them we believed them to be true.

How could this happen?

We blew it.

There is no pleasant way to put it. We didn't check the facts carefully. We believed what we were told without verifying. We weren't as skeptical as we are supposed to be.

The question is not a matter of whether the facts were checked before the story was published. That question has been answered definitively. The question is why were the facts not checked? As Charles at LGF put it, they weren't checked because the reporters, editors, and faculty supervisors wanted the story to be true, so they allowed themselves to believe it. Yes, indeed: they blew it. But can you blame them? These papers are the breeding grounds for tomorrow's WaPo, NYT, and LAT reporters, but they are also students. They learn from the people who are working already at those institutions and, it should be pointed out, from the people who taught those reporters. CBS goes to air with a story based around forged documents because they wanted them to be real. Eason Jordan and Linda Foley both make accusations that US soldiers are deliberately targeting journalists with no facts to support them because the wanted the stories to be real.

In these cases and dozens like them the journalists compounded the error of "we blew it" by publishing those stories. That act turned unsupported allegations into the truth for millions of Americans who have no ability to check the facts of the story and are relying on the media to give them the facts - the real facts - and all of them, as well. The DE got burned and it's going to take a while to recover from it. Their readership cycles past them in 4 years, however, so high-school seniors this year will come to SIU next year without the taint of this story in their heads. The DE will be able to come across as completely trustworthy and all will be well on campus. The reporters at the DE, however, will cycle out of school and into the media where it will be you and I, as adults, that will need to deal with them. Will they truly learn the lesson that's been taught here or will they become the Dan Rathers and Mary Mapes's and Eason Jordans and Linda Foleys of the next generation? Here's hoping this one hurt enough to leave a mark.