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Sun., Sept. 4, 2005

Following rules doesn’t rectify flawed facts

In a perfect world, factual errors would never get into news stories or form the basis for subsequent coverage. Also, sources and journalists would understand how each other think. And we’d have avoided the set of problems associated with two columns that freelance writer Frank Sennett wrote about Camp Fire USA, which appeared in the paper’s “7” supplement on Aug. 19 and 26. Neither of the columns, it is important to emphasize, suggested or hinted at allegations of child abuse at Camp Fire’s North Idaho location.

It’s a complex tale. The first column followed up on a news story by investigative reporter Bill Morlin, which appeared on July 31. That story was part of the ongoing coverage of pedophile activities in the 1970s and 1980s. Among other points, Morlin mentioned that Camp Fire’s North Idaho facility had in place a plaque honoring George Robey, who killed himself in 1982 following allegations that he’d molested young boys – not at Camp Fire, but in other settings.

Sennett’s first column cited Morlin’s report, on which he asked Camp Fire USA’s national office to comment. But two things were wrong. The plaque had already been removed by the time Morlin’s report appeared, says Lois Richards, who’s president of the local Camp Fire board of directors. As best she can recall, it was removed about the middle of July. In addition, she says, the plaque was not in a cabin used by children. (Morlin’s original said it was in “a lodge.”)

The error about the plaque still being there wasn’t Morlin’s fault; it was accurate at the time of writing and its removal wasn’t brought to the paper’s attention until much later. So, with no corrections setting the record straight, Sennett relied on the details about the plaque and its placement. He correctly notes that columnists routinely offer comment on news coverage. Also, he says, it’s not expected that a columnist would double check information – especially when it comes from as experienced and credible reporter as Morlin. His editor, Nancy Malone, strongly agrees, he says. She was out of the office and I couldn’t get her input directly.

I agree that columnists generally cannot be expected to “re-report” each story they write on. However, Sennett and I sharply disagree on whether he should have checked the factual basis for the first column. Given that the entire column hinged on whether Camp Fire had addressed the plaque issue, had I been writing the column I would have checked that it was (or was not) still in place. Because of the publicity from Morlin’s story, I would have assumed the local organization may well have removed the plaque or begun moves to do so; that would be important to confirm.

While Sennett insists that he followed standard ground rules in the way columnists respond to news events, Camp Fire’s leaders don’t see it that way. Rather, they saw two columns about them that were based on inaccurate assumptions, and led to them being needlessly skewered. In this case, Sennett’s following the normal rules of journalism wasn’t enough to provide what’s even more important to readers: was what appeared in print correct?

When researching his story, Morlin was refused permission for him and a photographer to photograph the plaque, as this would be disruptive since the camp was in session. Also, he’d already been given the wording on the plaque. When camp director Lee Taylor said “no” to Morlin, he was probably oblivious to how journalists tend to respond to a rejection like this. By nature, journalists are skeptical, and to Sennett, this sounded like the weakest of excuses, leading him to wonder if the organization had anything to hide. It certainly sparked his interest in doing a follow-up column. So he contacted the Camp Fire national office for comment, sending them Morlin’s story.

Then things reached another level of complexity. Camp Fire USA, says local board member Richards, is a decentralized organization. Not surprisingly, the national office knew nothing about the local situation, other than the story Sennett sent to them. Vanessa Adams, its communications head, referred him back to the local organization while she, too, waited to hear from them. When Sennett hadn’t heard anything further from Adams for a week, he wrote the first column slamming the national office for “refusing to address the situation.”

One phone call to the local office would have revealed that the plaque was long gone. But Sennett says he saw no need to follow up locally; it was from the national office that he sought a response. He then upped the ante and began calling donors to the national organization, and in his follow-up column said that after these calls the national office released a statement saying the plaque had been removed. The implication: this result came only in response to funder pressure.

While there are many more threads to this tale, the short version is that Sennett, who describes himself as an aggressive reporter, wrote two hard-hitting columns that took on both the local but especially the national Camp Fire organization. And both were based on “factual” information that wasn’t.

Three conclusions. First, it makes little difference to you as a subject of a story if a journalist has followed all normal journalistic protocols, as Sennett insists he did, but the very foundation of the story is wrong.

Second, there’s a lesson for news sources. Journalists are a suspicious breed, and when you send them signals like not wanting a reporter or photographer to visit you, that raises their antennae. Worse, when a reporter senses that you’re stonewalling, which is how Sennett saw the national office’s unresponsiveness, that makes journalists even more suspicious. The national office’s Adams says that they were simply waiting to hear from the local chapter before getting back to Sennett. Anyone who’s worked with non-profit organizations and boards knows that these groups do not, and often cannot, always move fast. Adams says that in retrospect they should have got back to Sennett sooner, if only to let him know they had nothing yet to report from Spokane. In addition, she said, they’ve changed their procedures to ensure quicker responses to the media in the future.

Third, even though I think it was incumbent on Sennett to confirm the details about the plaque, he is correct that none of this would have occurred had the local chapter responded immediately to the errors in Morlin’s story. That’s something, in retrospect, the local Camp Fire board no doubt wishes it had done.

As I said, a complex tale. Ironically, though, it’s one that in a perfect world wouldn’t have been told at all.

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