An ethical breakdown in Colorado shows the influence of the ‘Romenesko effect’

By now you may have heard about a remarkable 1,000-word retraction published by the Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado, regarding a story about local residents’ memories of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. I first learned that the paper had a problem from Colorado College journalism professor Corey Hutchins’ newsletter. He wrote last Friday that the story in question had been taken down, and then — several hours later — came the retraction.

It seems that just about everything you could imagine was wrong with the story, including quotes, names and even the location of the Pentagon. The Camera frankly uses the word “fabricated” in describing what happened. The retraction does not name the reporter, but Hutchins does — April Morganroth, who would not comment when Hutchins contacted her.

A couple of observations about this remarkable lapse of journalism ethics.

First, we used to call this the “Romenesko effect,” after the pioneering media blogger Jim Romenesko, now retired. When he first began his work in the late 1990s, he would occasionally highlight some instance of fabrication or plagiarism that had gotten someone fired.

Oftentimes these incidents took place at obscure publications. Back in the day, young, inexperienced reporters caught in such instances of wrongdoing might, if they were sufficiently contrite, have a chance to start over at a different publication. The rise of online media such as Romenesko’s blog made that all but impossible since a reporter’s misdeeds would follow them wherever they tried to land. Maybe that was fair, maybe it wasn’t. But the rules had changed for good.

Second, it’s hard not to notice that the Camera is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Staffing, no doubt, is minimal, and Morganroth’s story may have been published with little or no editing. It’s possible that a diligent editor would have spotted problems, though maybe not.

Certainly large, well-edited papers like The New York Times and The Boston Globe have had issues with fabricators, so I don’t mean to pick on the Camera. But to the extent that the problems with Morganroth’s story were catchable, they were less likely to be caught at a paper with few newsroom resources than at one that still has a reasonable level of editing.