By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Herald questions Globe over account of cab accident

In case you missed it, in part three of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team series on the Boston cab industry we learned that Globe staff member Bob Hohler got in an accident while driving a taxi in the course of his reporting:

Before his stint behind the wheel ends, the reporter will see what it means to be cheated by a taxi company and his ­passengers. And he will survive a harrowing crash — a ­not-uncommon occupational hazard — after a motorist runs a red light near Copley Square. The collision will send the reporter and his passengers to the hospital and destroy the taxicab.

Today the Boston Herald comes back with a front-page story by Matt Stout questioning the Globe’s account of the accident as well as Hohler’s hands-on reporting technique:

A Boston Globe reporter masquerading as a Hub taxi driver gave a disputed version of a two-car crash that sent him and his two passengers to the hospital in a front-page story yesterday that’s raising questions about liability and whether he misrepresented himself.

The Herald also quotes a statement from the Globe that appears to deny Hohler was under cover — it says Hohler identified himself to Boston Police and his passengers. It’s a little unclear, though, whether that was before or after the accident. [Update: The police knew ahead of time, but the cab company didn’t, though Hohler says he would have identified himself if asked.]*

Coincidentally, last week I had an opportunity to spend some time with New York University journalism professor Brooke Kroeger, who argues in her book “Undercover Reporting: The Truth about Deception” that such techniques have gotten an undeserved bad rap. Kroeger, among other things, is the biographer of Nelly Bly, the ultimate undercover reporter.

I am reasonably sure that John Carroll will weigh in on the latest Globe-Herald dust-up later today. Should make for interesting reading.

*More: Hohler talks about the experience in a Globe video.

Still more: John Carroll takes his first cut, but appears to be withholding his judgment for the time being.

More and more: Earlier today, I had the following Twitter exchange with the redoubtable Seth Mnookin:

Now Carroll has taken his second cut, and characterizes Mnookin and me as taking the position that the Herald’s reporting is “totally without merit.” In fact, I wouldn’t characterize it that way. I was agreeing with Mnookin as to why the Herald jumped into the fray, but I didn’t mean to imply that the tabloid was shooting nothing but blanks.

Essentially, I agree with Carroll: the Herald raised a legitimate question, but overplayed it, as is its wont.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    Reams of essays have been written debating the lengths to which reporters should go to identify themselves. It does not appear that Hohler did anything deceptive here. He applied and went through the same process to get the job anyone else did. Would this merit attention if Hohler were a novelist researching a story?

    The lede to the Herald story, however, is misleading and unnecessarily provocative. It makes it sound as if Hohler was illegally and recklessly driving the city streets, possibly in drag.

  2. Peter Sullivan

    I think the word Masquerading was a bit over the top, but the brunt of it was that there were two different versions of the accident from Hohler himself. The amended version six days later showing Holher in a much better light for not being at fault. It makes you wonder how a trained reporter with an obvious eye for detail from reading the lengthy series could whiff on the details of a car crash he was a part of.
    I think that there is more to come on this…

  3. Journalistic ethics, in general, state that you should *identify yourself* as a reporter first thing. When they pick up the phone, when you walk in the door, you say “Hi, I’m ___ ____ and I’m a reporter for ____.” So when he says he would have disclosed if asked, it’s just his way of saying “What I did was not ethical, but I would not have doubled down.”

    It’s a good story, but he could’ve gotten something of equal quality (and possibly more human interest) if he’d just developed a close relationship and gotten great access to a single cab driver. It doesn’t take a good reporter to get a job doing unskilled labor and have an accident.

  4. Mike Benedict

    Different subject, but how does Carroll get away with excerpting such large swaths of text from the local media’s sites? Seems to go well beyond fair use.

  5. Matt Kelly

    Am I the only one whose first thought was, ‘Wow, the Globe’s legal department must be freaking out over two passengers getting into an accident with Hohler at the wheel?’

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Matt: I’d be shocked if the Globe’s legal department wasn’t pulled into the discussion before Hohler ever drove a shift. This has to be a possibility they had considered.

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