The Digital Journalist

No Good Reason to
Duck and Cover
September 2007

by Mark Doremus and Karen Slattery

Back in April 2007, the New York Daily News ran a story with the headline, "Girl, 5, raped, killed with her jump rope." The paper labeled the incident a "slaying" and implied that the girl's family members were under suspicion because of "inconsistencies in their statements."

The story was repeated in the mainstream media and widely across the Internet.

However, the initial account of the girl's death, which the paper attributed to unnamed police sources, turned out to be fundamentally untrue. Additional police work revealed the girl had not been murdered, nor was she raped. Her death was a tragic accident. She somehow got tangled in the jump rope while playing and strangled herself.

The Daily News updated the story twice, retreating from the initial claims that the cause of death was homicide. But it never, as far as we can tell, issued a detailed explanation of how it got the story so wrong. Both the family members and the public would certainly have appreciated that.

All this is documented on a Web site named StinkyJournalism, which is run by a nonprofit organization called the Art Science Research Laboratory. According to a report on the site, the group contacted the Daily News' director of Communications and grilled her about the episode. According to StinkyJournalism, Jennifer Mauer responded, "We did not get the story wrong. We report stories in real time as they happen." In other words, in its rush to report a sensational story, the Daily News ran with speculation from unnamed police sources. It beat the competition – with a story that was full of glaring errors.

Some might argue that the Daily News is "just" a New York City tabloid, albeit one with a daily circulation of almost 700,000 people, so, what do you expect?

What we should all expect is transparency and accountability.

These concepts are discussed in a book called "The Elements of Journalism" by Bill Kovach of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Tom Rosentiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Transparency means being honest about what you know – and what you don't know – when you run a story. If you must report unverified statements, explain why and be ready to publicly defend your actions. Better yet, just hold off until you have the story right.

Accountability means taking your lumps when you make a mistake. Journalists can't respond to criticism with silence or excuses such as, "That's what the cop said." We must promptly admit our own mistakes and set the record straight for the benefit of the public.

Morally, we are required to repair the harms that we impose on others. The reporters at the Daily News committed a harm when they used one or more unnamed, and ultimately ill-informed, sources in their rush to publish a story about the death of the 5-year-old and smeared the girl's family in the process.

That harm was perpetuated when the paper did not give the public a complete accounting in its follow-up reports. Both the family and the public deserved better.

So do we. Professionals must hold fellow journalists responsible for their failures – if they won't come clean themselves – instead of politely ignoring their misdeeds.

It all comes down to protecting our collective journalistic reputations. That's a job we cannot abdicate to outsiders (although their insights are always welcome). The responsibility is one that we must carry out for ourselves.

© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.