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

Tag: Albany Times Union

A murder that didn’t happen, reported by a news outlet that didn’t check

This is about as bizarre a media story as you can find. On Dec. 4, a small digital news outlet called the Mid Hudson News reported that a man had been fatally shot in Newburgh, New York. It turned out to be fake news, but not before it was picked up by the aggregation site Newsbreak — which, in turn, published a commentary written by artificial intelligence falsely blaming the incorrect story on the rise of social media.

The owner of the Mid Hudson News, a former New York state senator, Mike Martucci, and the founder and editor, Hank Gross, blame it all on the city of Newburgh, citing its policy of funneling all media comment through a spokesman who they claim doesn’t get back to them in a timely manner.

The story is laid out in a Dec. 21 article in the Times Union of Albany, written by reporters Lana Bellamy and Phillip Pantuso.

Incredibly, the Mid Hudson News’ story, headlined “Man says his cousin is shot dead,” is still online. An editor’s note appears at the bottom: “Our earlier story about an alleged incident in Newburgh was incorrectly reported as there was no incident involving a shooting of any kind in the City of Newburgh.” As you can see, the report is based on the word of someone named Major Bradley, who heard from relatives the next day that Bolder had been fatally shot. In other words, not only did the News publish a one-source story, but that source had no first-hand knowledge about the murder. Then again, there was no murder.

Gross told the Times Union that there was, in fact, a second source who he did not cite in his report, and that he chose to go ahead and publish after city spokesman Mike Neppl failed to respond in a timely manner. “You’re lucky if you get a response, and if you do, more often than not it’s not timely,” Gross was quoted as saying. “How long do you wait?”

Now, there’s not one word I can offer in defense of the Mid Hudson News. But according to the Times Union, Neppl and the city of Newburgh really do have some issues when it comes to dealing with the press; among other things, city officials have clashed with a television reporter over their apparent refusal to provide crime data.

And despite Neppl’s claim that the city’s policy of funneling all media responses through one spokesperson is common, the Times Union reported that “few if any municipalities in the Times Union’s coverage area, large or small, have a similar requirement for all non-elected officials.”

The whole tale is just astonishing.

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The media should learn from the Times Union’s example on ethics and independence

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo (cc) 2014 by Diana Robinson.

Just last week I praised the Times Union of Albany, New York, for its reporting on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s history of sexual harassment and assault. Now the paper is having “a moment,” as a headline at the Columbia Journalism Review puts it, earning widespread plaudits for its principled — and colorful — refusal to accept off-the-record documents that were apparently aimed at smearing one of Cuomo’s accusers.

As Azi Paybarah reported in The New York Times, Times Union editor-in-chief Casey Seiler and managing editor Brendan Lyons were on a call last March with Cuomo’s then-top aide, Melissa DeRosa, when DeRosa told them she was going to send them documents about Lindsey Boylan, one of Cuomo’s alleged victims. It turned out that the governor’s office was secretly recording the conversation, and the transcript was included in last week’s report by state Attorney General Letitia James. (Secretly recording someone in New York State is legal.)

Seiler’s response: “Ugh, no, no! Not off the record. No, don’t send us anything unless it’s on the record, Melissa, OK?”

This is the way to do it. Although off-the-record conversations and documents can sometimes be helpful in establishing context, they are also incredibly dangerous, tying the hands of journalists and making them complicit.

As Jon Allsop notes at the CJR, the Times Union’s stand has nothing to do with the ongoing debate about objectivity; rather, it’s about independence:

There is, as Paybarah and others have suggested, something pleasingly old school about the Times Union’s approach to the Cuomo story. But at a moment of profound media-industry debate — that cuts, in caricature at least, down generational lines — as to the value of traditional journalistic norms and practices, it’s worth noting that what’s good about the paper’s journalism, as presented in the report, is not old-schoolness, in itself, but its strict critical distance from power, a value that many of the industry’s would-be reformers are trying to reassert, not muddy.

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan praised the Times Union as well, writing that it “maintained proper journalistic distance from sources, even when there was a price to pay in terms of access. Refused off-the-record information. Served the public interest.”

Of course, it’s worth nothing that the Times, the Post and some of the other major news outlets that have lauded the Times Union over the past week regularly allow the powerful to go off the record even when they shouldn’t. So in addition to ladling on the hosannas, I hope they’ll also treat the example of the Times Union as a learning experience.

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