By: Joe Strupp
The Los Angeles Times’ apparent reliance on fabricated FBI records in a story wrongly linking rapper Sean “Puffy” Combs to the shooting of Tupac Shakur has raised new concerns over the use of documents obtained from anonymous sources.
It also shows the new scrutiny that newspapers and other news outlets are facing when they post such documents online. In the Times case, the paper posted the fabricated report on its Web site with the original Web story March 17.
That prompted the online outlet, smokinggun.com, to conduct its own review of the report and challenge its validity on Wednesday. Within hours, the story was called into question and the Times issued an apology.
“One of the reasons that the story was rolled out on the Web was that it offered a vehicle to tell the complete story and utilize multimedia to do it,” said Times Spokeswoman Nancy Sullivan. “The medium itself allows the media to tell a story in another way.”
But the growing practice of posting documents, reports and any variety of background material on Web sites also opens the door to increased scrutiny.
“Perhaps that is a greater burden when you transparently provide the modus operandi of your work – the documents and other evidence that you use in making your case,” said Bob Steele, a top ethics instructor at the Poynter Institute. “You are more vulnerable to your critics, but also more accountable.”
Steele and several other press observers cited the past case of CBS News admitting it relied on documents that could not be verified in its 2004 story about George W. Bush’s National Guard service “As CBS News learned, it is wise to pay attention to the challenges of critics,” he added. “It raises the level of quality control. In this era of the Internet, there are hundreds of critics waiting around every corner to examine the journalism and challenge it.”
Daniel Okrent, former public editor for The New York Times, said posting such documents online should not spark a newspaper to be more careful. He said such concerns should be placed on the use of documents whether they are posted or not. “You have an absolute level of care,” he said. “You have to be as sure about a document you cite in the paper as you would be online. Posting a document online makes it seem even more so. “
In its story today, the Los Angeles Times stated that reporter Chuck Philips, who wrote the original story, had asked a former FBI agent to review the documents. Some earlier concerns were raised because the documents appeared to have been typed on a typewriter, which is unusual for FBI records in recent years.
“This is one of the best things about the Web, it can expose fraud that way,” said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. “I salute the Los Angeles Times for putting it on the Web and for taking this step, which is to their credit.”
Jones, a former media writer for The New York Times, said the Los Angeles Times should be commended for exposing the fabrication so publicly. “Mainstream news organizations don?t get enough credit for putting errors and corrections out in front of the public; doctors don’t, lawyers don?t,” he said. “It should make you more careful.”
Michael Parks, a former Los Angeles Times editor and currently director of the USC Annenberg School for Communications, said this should not deter news outlets from posting background material online, which he said “gives them more opportunity to be as transparent as possible.”
But he said the scrutiny cannot be too high. “If this leads to challenges to their reporting, that is to the good,” he said about the general posting of such documents. “If it leads to being more scrupulous and ruthless in how they go about gathering news. It is about a broad trend to regain credibility.”
Parks also pointed out that reporters need to look at the motives of anyone who provides anonymous information. In this case, it appears that the Times’ source for the false report may have been James Sabatino, a former Combs promoter whom the Times described as “a convicted con man with a history of elaborate fantasies designed to exaggerate his place in the rap music firmament.”
“You have to ask who gave them to you, where they got them and what are the motives,” Parks added about such documents.
Vlae Kershner, news director for the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, SFGate.com, supported the practice of posting such background information online, citing his paper’s use of the Web to post pages of documents related to the BALCO steroid case the paper broke years ago. “Let the readers see source information and if they want to challenge it, let them,” he said. “If you are not careful already, you should be careful and not have a problem posting documents.”