deadlines amuse me

exploring how the world works and why it works that way …

Is fact-checking dead at U.S. newspapers?

with one comment

USA Today profiled a beverage company CEO earlier this week, reporting that the top dog attended Harvard, was drafted by the Boston Bruins and played minor league hockey.

The headline read: “From hockey star to accident victim to CEO” under the feature label “Today’s Entrepreneur.”

But it appears it isn’t true. The CEO’s public relations agency apologized to the paper, saying its client, Larry Twombly of Hat Trick Beverage in California, had misled the agency about his background. (Doesn’t “mislead” mean “lie”?)

Many of the details provided to USA Today by Twombly’s PR firm proved to be wrong — and apparently the agency didn’t do any fact-checking, either. The PR firm assumed a client wouldn’t mislead it. After all, why would a CEO want to artificially burnish his image? (When you’re through laughing, read on.)

Why wouldn’t the newspaper check the facts provided by a PR firm? Apparently the newspaper assumed that a PR firm would not provide misleading information. (I know, I know. Stop laughing. You’ll hurt yourself.)

So the CEO, his agency said, prevaricated. The PR firm handed off the info with nary a peep. The newspaper accepted it unquestioningly. In fact, the first five grafs of the profile carry no attribution for the facts contained whatsoever. The sixth graf quotes Twombly and describes him as “frank talking.”

In the entire profile, the only attributions are quotes of Twombly and a business partner. All other grafs carrying facts about his life contain no source at all.

So why didn’t USA Today check the facts (let alone attribute the facts)?

Select your answer, please:

A) Newspapers run flattering profiles of businessmen (and far fewer women) because to run unflattering profiles endangers advertising revenue from business. That endangers maximizing shareholder value of the corporation that owns the newspaper.

B) The corporation that owns the newspaper, to maximize shareholder value, has the cut newspaper’s staff so much that no one has the time to confirm the facts on a puff piece about a beverage company owner.

C) Both.

The consequences for us readers: Liars get to look like business super-heroes because they’re rarely caught after hyping their achievements beyond the bounds of truth. Notice all the reporting USA Today did after it was tipped about Twombly. It caught him, but only after the tip.

If only the paper had done its job right the first time …


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 11, 2005 at 12:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Emphatically, I choose “C” Bob.
    -Jody Roselle


    August 14, 2005 at 4:38 am

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