h digitalfootprint web 728x90

The Elbert Files: Skeptical editing


The recent situation involving the Des Moines Register and its controversial profile of Carson King has me recalling lessons learned during my time as an editor at the publication during an ethics scandal that occurred 20 years ago.

You remember King. He’s the guy whose plea for beer money at the Iowa-Iowa State football game produced a $3 million windfall for the University of Iowa’s Children’s Hospital.

The Register’s decision to include descriptions of racist tweets from 2012 when he was 16 years old at the bottom of an otherwise positive profile created a tidal wave of support for King and a backlash against the newspaper for prying too far into the life of a good Samaritan.

The situation worsened when editors learned of inappropriate tweets by the young reporter who wrote the story and subsequently let him go.

Some have suggested the Register’s editing process was more to blame than the reporter, and I agree. But I also believe the situation could have been avoided if editors had recalled the lessons of 20 years ago.

Gannett, the media conglomerate that owns the Register and more than 100 other daily newspapers, was one of several media companies involved in news gathering scandals during the 1990s.

In Gannett’s case, the scandal involved the Cincinnati Enquirer, which published an investigative story about Chiquita International, a fruit wholesaler owned by a Cincinnati businessman. The article appeared on May 3, 1998, and alleged all sorts of malfeasance by Chiquita.

But two months later, the Enquirer “renounced” the series and issued a front-page apology that ran for three days, and paid Chiquita more than $10 million.

The problem with the story was that one of the newspaper’s reporters had retrieved information by hacking into Chiquita’s voicemail system with access codes he’d received from a disgruntled former Chiquita lawyer.

The reporter’s deceit, not to mention the $10 million payout, sent shivers down the spines of Gannett executives.

To make sure something similar did not happen again, Gannett hired outside experts to develop ethics guidelines, which the company rolled out at a training session in Florida.

I was one of three Register employees sent to Florida to learn the ethics curriculum and teach it to our colleagues back in Des Moines.

The lessons covered conflicts of interest, anonymous sources and how to handle corrections. Invasion of privacy was also a big concern, because legal cases at the time were producing high-dollar settlements for situations where reporters misrepresented themselves to gain information they could not otherwise obtain.

Finally, Gannett’s ethics guidelines recommended that any investigative story or series be reviewed by a “skeptical” editor.

One thing the guidelines did not cover to any significant degree was social media, because 20 years ago social media was in its infancy. If it existed at all, it was in the form of internet bulletin boards. There were no central depositories for people’s tweets or Facebook posts.

But the general principles about privacy and relevance still apply today, including to sources based on social media.

And while the specific example of the Cincinnati Enquirer is different from this one, it points to the importance of skeptical editing, and a series of questions that it would have led me to raise.

How old was King when he wrote the tweets? Why did he write them? What relevance do they have to the money King raised for the U of I Children’s Hospital?

Finally, if the tweets are newsworthy, why are they at the bottom of the story?

Debating these questions and others is tough business. And news decisions being made in tight time windows, during an accelerating 24/7 news cycle and in a constantly evolving social media landscape only increases pressures and the need for skeptical editing.

Facebook Notice for EU! You need to login to view and post FB Comments!

eidebailly web 030123 300x250