Monday, March 17, 2008

The value of research, once again

New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, in Fooled Again, writes about how the Times could have been spared public embarassment if they'd just asked for a little research done before a story was published on "Margaret Jones" and her book about her supposed life as an abused child turning to gangs.

Of course, it's since been reported that the name was a nom de plume and the writer had made up the stories. Hoyt explains how a researcher could have saved the day:
WITH a few computer keystrokes last week at my request, Jack Begg, the supervisor of newsroom research at The Times, showed me that there was no record of a Margaret B. Jones in Eugene, Ore. With a few more keystrokes, he brought up property records showing that the house Jones said she owned was bought by Margaret Seltzer and another person in 2000 and now belongs to Stuart and Gay Seltzer after an “intrafamily transaction.”
...had Begg been asked to do five minutes of checking in readily available public records, or had reporters and editors done it themselves before the newspaper bit, The Times could have been spared the embarrassment of falling for yet another too-good-to-be-true memoir from a publishing industry unwilling to accept responsibility for separating fact from fiction.
So easy to do, and so hard to make sure it gets done. I was once embarassed by a story the Times did about someone we should have run all the public records on before it became a big story. I thought the reporters covering the person had done it, and I guess they thought I had. It emphasizes that there's no substitute for making sure that the subject of every story needs to be vetted, and having someone manage a newsroom's research.



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