Accuracy in Media

The Detroit Free Press announced on April that it had decided to discipline popular columnist Mitch Albom over details he reported which did not in fact take place. Some are asking whether he got special treatment over the breach of journalism ethics.

The column in question was written on a Friday deadline for Sunday publication on April 3. The article, “Longing for another slice of dorm pizza” was about nostalgia and sports, and included comments from two former Michigan State and current NBA basketball players, Mateen Cleaves and Jason Richardson. Both players shared comments about what they missed about the college days. The problem came in when Albom reported what both players told him: that they planned to attend the Michigan State game on Saturday. Albom reported the players “sat in the stands, in their MSU clothing, and rooted on their alma mater.” Neither player was able to make the game due to last-minute scheduling conflicts.  The game, of course, did not take place until the day after Albom’s column was submitted. That would’ve been clear to editors, however.

In Albom’s apology note to readers, he noted that the paper’s deadlines would’ve required some “weird writing” like: “By the time you read this, if Mateen and Jason stuck to their plans, they would have sat in the stands for Saturday’s game.” Nevertheless, it should have been written that way, said Albom.

The Detroit Free News published a note from publisher and editor Carole Leigh Hutton, who told readers “As a newspaper our credibility is paramount.” Unlike some other recent newspaper gaffes, Hutton put the onus both on the writer and those responsible for putting the story in the newspaper. In addition, she directed readers to a web page detailing the paper’s ethics policy. The editorial note was published Friday April 8 and titled “A Question of ethics: Columnist’s error being investigated.”

The Baltimore Sun’s Public Editor Paul Moore wrote that the situation was also a question of how editors at the Free Press could allow or justify publishing and providing for its wire service material that they knew was bogus. He also quoted Randy Harvey, The Sun’s assistant managing editor for sports as saying, “Anyone who does that, especially in this day and age, when the media are scrutinized as never before, should lose his job. So should the editors who saw the column before it appeared and allowed it to be published.” Moore continued: “In this case, the editors involved knew what he had written had not happened and yet did not stop it. They even sent it to the news service, where some member newspapers picked it up and posted it on their Web sites.”

The situation is evocative of the recent flap over the Boston Globe publishing an eyewitness account of the opening day of Newfoundland’s seal hunt, when in fact it had not yet happened. According to one Globe editor, the newspaper knew the reporter did not attend the hunt, yet they published the story anyway.

Still there seems to be a significant difference in how the Free Press forthrightly handled the issue of a staff writer, who submitted something with his editors’ approval to meet a Friday deadline, and how the Boston Globe handled its fabricated story about a seal hunt that didn’t occur. The Free Press reported that disciplinary action has been taken against five employees, Albom and four others, each of whom had some role in putting the April 3 column into the paper and each of whom had the responsibility to fix errors before publication. The Free Press added, “We also think it’s important to report on ourselves and our transgressions in the same way we would report on the institutions we write about regularly.” That statement alone is a refreshing change from the image of elite media power players making excuses for failures, as Dan Rather did with his Memogate catastrophe.

In the Globe’s case, it wasn’t clear if the paper really thought this was unethical, or if it was just sorry it got caught. Unlike the Free Press situation, no one but the Globe writer, now ex-writer, was disciplined.  The public is not likely to view such a reaction as fair, especially since Globe Foreign Editor James Smith told Reuters that the newspaper knew that the reporter was not at the seal hunt. 

These events also raise the question of how prevalent the practice is of editors allowing or encouraging reporters to “pretend” like they attended events they are reporting on, whether it’s to meet a print deadline or to add drama to the story.

It’s a serious question, since such an action is a breach of journalistic ethics newspapers are dedicated to upholding.  In the most recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly, in am article on “The Collapse of Big Media,” Terry Eastland notes that journalists aspire to the status of professionals, but never acquired the self-regulatory mechanisms found in law, medicine or even business.

Journalist Dan Gillmor published a note from Jim Bettinger, a former San Jose Mercury News colleague of his who now runs the Knight Fellowships at Stanford. Bettinger said that there’s “something profoundly disturbing about the newspaper business, more so than Jayson Blair or Jack Kelley or any of the others.” He offers that it could say something about cutbacks in the newsroom and editors who publish without having time to read something. Or, there’s the “other explanation”-that newspapers may be tolerating a “certain degree of misleading readers” in order to get livelier, more dramatic prose. The fact that Mitch Albom’s column was approved by three editors suggests to Bettinger that the practice is “part of our operating system.”

Paul Moore of the Baltimore Sun also raises the question of whether Albom got special treatment because he’s a star columnist. Albom has won many awards, is a best-selling author, has a syndicated radio show and is a regular on ESPN to boot. Moore recalls that in 2003, then-Executive Editor Carole Leigh Hutton was criticized for spiking a critical review of Album’s book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” “Somehow using him to sell newspapers one day and publishing something hurtful the next day felt dishonest and hypocritical,” said Hutton.

Moore wasn’t the only one who brought the issue of Albom’s celebrity up. Jack Lessenberry, a journalism professor at Wayne State University, told the Los Angeles Times, “Albom is really the only recognizable name they [the Free Press] have. I think they will bend over backwards for marketing reasons to not fire him unless they absolutely have to.”

Describing Albom as a “demigod” at the Free Press, the Times noted “The very notion that anything might come between the paper and its franchise writer must be a nightmarish prospect for the Free Press, which has seen its circulation drop about 35% in the last decade.” The L.A. Times reported some see Albom as a “golden boy” who had his own set of rules at the paper. The Times reported that a Free Press former copy editor said he had been told to keep his hands off Albom’s columns, and to only do a cursory check of them.

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