Accuracy in Media

Texas’ second-largest newspaper announced last weekend it will retract eight stories and issue corrections on 64 others after an internal investigation revealed a former statehouse political reporter appeared to have made up sources for his stories.

Mike Ward, who came to the Houston Chronicle from the Austin American-Statesman, put words into the mouths of run-of-the-mill Republicans.

The story that likely got Ward in trouble – given it was the last of the eight retracted stories to appear and came out shortly before he left the paper – was headlined, “‘We’ve moved on’: Political anger after Harvey has eased; Experts believe disaster response is unlikely to be a factor in November.”

After a reporter raised questions to editors in August about Ward’s sourcing, the Houston Chronicle hired David Wood, a freelance investigative reporter, to check into Ward’s story.

In a story about what he found in his investigation, Wood wrote that Ward began the article about Hurricane Harvey with a quote from a West Houston woman named Betsy Scheer saying she was no longer angry about the spotty government response to Harvey and planned to vote Republican.

“My friends are mostly the same way now,” she said.

The woman could not be located. Neither could three other regular people quoted in the story.  

From there, “a pattern began to emerge,” Wood wrote. “Alongside quotes from easy-to-find political figures, his stories were spiced with sparkling quotes from ordinary Texans, including a software engineer from Dallas, a businesswoman from Williamson County, a tea party activist. Many of them could not be found, despite extensive searches in multiple databases by a newsroom researcher and more work by a private investigator.”

The other stories the Chronicle retracted had to do with the Texas Republican Party embracing Trump, “Outside Texas GOP convention, political parties are becoming less important;” How Republican disagreements in Houston mirror those nationwide; how the GOP had a big cash advantage in Texas; the NRA’s role in the elections; how a congressional district may flip to Democrats and on how victories in special elections could signal a blue wave in Texas.

Wood attempted to track down the 275 people Ward identified as having given him man-on-the-street quotes from January 2014 to August of this year. Nearly half – 122 – could not be located. Only 103 were located, and another 50 did not have enough information about them in the stories to track them down.

Ward denies using fake sources, but he said when confronted his notes had been destroyed, resigned on the spot and did not return calls or messages from Wood during the investigation.

How could this happen? How could fact-checkers not have caught this before it came to involve 275 people? “Like most daily newspapers, the Chronicle has no dedicated fact-checking department (though editors often double as checkers),” wrote Alexandria Neason of Columbia Journalism Review in “Broken trust at the Houston Chronicle.”

The newsroom has about 220 people, Neason reported, including about 40 line editors and copy editors. Lack of personnel was not thought to be a contributing factor.

Wood also performed a spot check of nine stories from three other reporters, and all but one of the sources in those stories was easily found.

Nancy Barnes, who announced the retractions and corrections on her last day as editor of the Chronicle before moving to NPR, said she would suggest periodic spot checks of reporters that “might help prevent something this egregious from happening again.”

The American-Statesman began a preliminary look into Ward’s articles there when the Chronicle announced its investigation, and John Bridges, the managing editor, said the American-Statesman now will take a more extensive look.

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