Sacramento Bee takes steps in the wake of the Diana Griego Erwin scandal.
I blogged about the Sacbee's Pulitzer prize winning columnist and fraud Diana Griego-Erwin before. Click here. In Sunday's Bee, Public Editor Armando Acuña announced measures put in place at the Bee to avoid another such episode.
First the paper has been upfront about what happened. There is no question that the Bee's credibility was shaken by Griego-Erwin's fraud. However unlike others, the paper investigated what happened and came clean about their mistakes.
It was a national embarrassment and part of what seemed like an epidemic of journalistic fraud at papers such as the Detroit Free Press, the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, to mention just a few, while also providing easy fodder for the media's critics.
It also raised uncomfortable and significant questions - all posed by readers - such as how could the apparent lies have gone undetected for so long? Were other stories breaching the internal system of checks and balances? Was management inept? Could the paper be trusted?
Things were ugly, and it was all self-inflicted.
I said before you had to wonder how many Grieg0-Erwin's there are out there in the MSM. Even better, how do you try to prevent such frauds? For the credibility of a news organization is permanently scarred when these scandals break. The New York Times is still paying for Jayson Blair but that paper isn't helped by other smaller controversies that seem to point to a bigger problem.
Mr. Acuña went on to announce a new policy at the Bee.
And starting this week, the paper will look outward. I am reinstituting a system of accuracy letters that was initiated by my predecessor, Tony Marcano, but which lapsed when he left late last year.
My office will send letters randomly to sources identified by name in staff-written stories. The letters will ask sources several questions, such as whether the story was accurate and fair, whether their comments and quotes were reported correctly, whether the headline and photos were accurate, whether important elements were missing from the story, and for their general impressions.
Unlike the previous program, though, where the responses were kept confidential, the letters will be shared with the reporter and his or her editor as well as with Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez and Managing Editor Joyce Terhaar.
I will select the stories about which we will send out accuracy letters. Over time, all of the paper's columnists and reporters - including those in the regional editions - will be included.
This to me sounds like a good policy. There has already been some grumbling in the Bee's newsroom over it, but I think it's a necessary step.
Some of the paper's reporters and editors that I've talked to over the last several months in the wake of the apparent fabrications believe that accuracy letters would not have caught the falsehoods. How can you send letters to people who don't exist, the argument goes.
But a pattern of such nonresponsiveness, I believe, could have triggered early red flags and more in-depth questioning.
I agree with the Bee's public editor. This would have uncovered Diana Griego-Erwin's fabrications or anyone else's much earlier. To those who object to this, if your sources say what you reported, why would any journalist fear this kind of checking? The Bee's credibility as a news organization is dependent on the accuracy of its reporting.
There is one unanswered question however that Mr. Acuña didn't address. That is unnamed sources. The previous research done on Griego-Erwin's writing left open the question of the validity of even her unnamed sources. What is the Bee's policy towards unnamed sources? Is the paper doing anything different now than they did before? I think Mr. Acuna should address this also in one of his columns.
The Bee's publisher, Janis Besler Heaphy, supports reinstituting the letters.
"This is in keeping with our commitment to accuracy in our news coverage," she said in an e-mail. "I've made it clear to the newsroom in the wake of the Griego Erwin incident that there are no higher values than accuracy and the readiness to correct the record when we do make a mistake. Our readers count on us first and foremost to be correct and believable.
"Accuracy letters are one way to assure that we maintain our standards. We are pursuing a variety of other techniques to ensure the work we're producing is fair, balanced and accurate. It is tough to admit mistakes readily. But it's our job to create a culture that recognizes and encourages our responsibility to do so."
The Bee has taken the right steps with the exception of the one thing I feel they need to clarify. I wish the rest of the MSM was just as upfront.
Update and clarification- This morning I emailed Mr. Acuna and he replied back. He reminded me that the sources that could not be identified in Ms. Griego-Erwin's columns were always named and that the Bee wasn't able to find some of these as the paper detailed here last June. Mr. Acuna also wrote-
As for unnamed sources, the paper has a strict policy in trying to limit their use. Senior editors must approve of each use and, when they are used, an effort is made to explain why and give as much identification as possible without compromising the source. Hope this helps.
I take the Bee's word they do check unconfirmed sources. Overall I think the Bee did a very good job of handling the Griego-Erwin matter. An explanation for the paper's readers about how they handle unnamed sources while not the problem in the Griego-Erwin affair would help explain the Bee's policies.
Sorry for the confusion.
Breakfast- Basil's blog