Monday, June 08, 2009

When reporting goes wrong

One of the basic tenets of journalism is to always endeavour to tell both sides of the story. Unfortunately, this isn't always possible, but most news organizations try to at least make an attempt and will insert a line like "Organization X could not be reached for comment by press time" if all else fails. This certainly isn't perfect, but it at least shows effort and informs the reader that there may be more to the story. Now, opinion columns and blogging are a bit different, but that kind of writing is usually clearly marked and readers understand what they're getting. Responsible writers and bloggers will generally address comments and factual criticism of opinion pieces as well, and admit it when they make mistakes. The key point, though, is that when something appears as a factual news piece, we usually expect it to include the facts and both sides' perspectives.

However, there are some cases where these guidelines aren't followed. Sometimes in cases where the facts aren't in dispute or are a matter of public record, the assumption that you need to get both sides disappears, which usually isn't that unrealistic. Nine times out of ten, this doesn't lead to a problem. When it does fail, though, big problems come up.

The key recent example is the Tony La Russa/Twitter story. La Russa, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, is suing Twitter [The Associated Press via Yahoo!, June 5] over an impersonator who set up a fake account in his name and sent some messages that some could find offensive. Later on Friday, in a widely-disseminated piece, The Associated Press reported that the suit had been settled. Here's the key information from the story, which ran as a sports brief in many newspapers and was posted on both technology and sports online sites across North America [AP via]:

"St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Twitter have reached a settlement in his lawsuit against the social networking site. La Russa said Friday that Twitter has agreed to pay legal fees and make a donation to his Animal Rescue Foundation."

It's easy to see why the AP ran with this; court cases aren't exactly hidden, so you'd imagine that La Russa is telling the truth here. There doesn't appear to be any motivation for him to lie and a settlement seems somewhat reasonable. It is a bit surprising, though, considering the masses of fake accounts on Twitter; this could be a dangerous precedent, as settling the case admits some culpability on Twitter's part, transfers the blame from the impersonator to the site itself and could pave the way for other such lawsuits from aggrieved celebrities.

Unfortunately, this was a case where spending the time to get in touch with the other side would have paid huge dividends. Twitter reported on the company blog Saturday that they had not settled with La Russa. Here's the key part of their statement:

"Impersonation violates Twitter's Terms of Service and we take the issue seriously. We suspend, delete, or transfer control of accounts known to be impersonation. When alerted, we took action in this regard on behalf of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

Reports this week that Twitter has settled a law suit and officially agreed to pay legal fees for an impersonation complaint that was taken care of by our support staff in accordance with our Terms are erroneous. Twitter has not settled, nor do we plan to settle or pay.

With due respect to the man and his notable work, Mr. La Russa’s lawsuit was an unnecessary waste of judicial resources bordering on frivolous. Twitter’s Terms of Service are fair and we believe will be upheld in a court that will ultimately dismiss Mr. La Russa’s lawsuit."

That's substantially different from what the La Russa camp claimed, and it makes much more sense. Twitter seems to have a good case on this one, and they'd be somewhat foolish in my mind to settle it without a really good deal, as it could set a very troublesome precedent and pave the way for a massive amount of copycat suits. Someone at the AP should have thought of this and at least contacted Twitter for comment, or included that they couldn't be reached by press time to show that there could be another side to the story. Instead, they not only reported one side's opinion as fact, they reported a statement from one side that appears to be demonstrably false as fact.

The bigger problem here is that it appears to be the AP that made this error (unless they picked it up from someone else, in which case they deserve to be criticized for attribution failure; the above AP story includes "said", not "told X", which would imply that LaRussa made his comments to the AP). The AP has their material broadcast worldwide and picked up by everyone else; with that kind of influence comes a substantial amount of responsibility, as Spiderman would tell you. As a result of the AP's mistake, a lot of respected publications that picked up their story now have egg on their face, which is unfortunate; they went with what looked like a reputable story from a reputable source, and were let down by a simple reporting failure. It's going to be very interesting to watch how this is handled and what corrections are made, but this should serve as a warning to journalists everywhere; getting both sides of the story helps even for the cases that appear routine.

Notes: I certainly don't want to commit the same error, so if anyone has information as to why this isn't the AP's fault, let me know and I'll update. Also, there's an interesting similarity between this and the case of Montreal pulling out of MLS expansion, where the AP also appeared to only give one side of the story.


  1. Although I'm also looking from the outside, I do know that the cuts industry-wide in journalism are affecting the AP as well. I saw a few regional jobs posted on an employment board, and I believe the consensus was that they weren't going to be filled.

    Also, more newspapers shutting down means less places for the AP to expand its base to and an inability to raise their rates, yet at the same time there is more of a reliance on their services.

  2. Good points, Steve. It certainly isn't a good time for anyone, and like I said, I can understand why the AP would consider this reliable, especially given the time pressures I'm sure their reporters are under. It would have helped if they'd at least tried to contact someone from Twitter though and included their response in an update or a correction; we shouldn't have had to wait a day for the Twitter guys to blog about it to find out the real facts.