Back and forth over accuracy of KBZK report

Two statements reported in a television news story about the investigation into Belgrade High School principal Paul Lamb have raised the hackles of journalists across the Gallatin Valley.

A report on KBZK on the evening of Oct. 6 by reporter Brooke Boone told readers that police in Belgrade have completed their investigation into allegation of misconduct against Lamb and that they will request that charges are filed against him.

Lamb allegedly patted down several female students in private while searching for missing money.

Boone reports:

Police have completed their investigation into allegations of misconduct by Belgrade High School Principal Paul Lamb and say they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges.

Detective Dustin Lensing said a request for prosecution should be in the hands of County Attorney Marty Lambert by the end of this week.

Some supporters of Lamb did not agree with the report and, believing it to be false, contacted Michael Tucker, the editor of the Belgrade News, which is also owned by the Chronicle’s parent company, Big Sky Publishing.

Tucker, who also believed Boone had it wrong, published a piece labeled as “commentary” to the Belgrade News site on the afternoon of Oct. 7. In it, Tucker writes:

The police have yet to finish their report. It is still being written. The news report is false. No one has asked the county attorney to pursue charges.

It’s a difficult thing to say since we’re in the news business, too, but just because someone says the sky is green doesn’t make it true.

Tucker cites no sources in his commentary.

From there, things got a little bit complicated.

Emails and Tweets

Boone, apparently having read the Belgrade News commentary, took to Twitter on the defensive on the night of Oct. 7 and on the morning after.

There was also a tweet Boone apparently deleted in which she directly jabs at Tucker’s commentary.

deleted tweet

Just before 5 p.m. that day, KBZK news director John Sherer wrote to Michael Tucker. In an email forwarded to the Chronicle, Sherer calls Tucker’s commentary “false” and says it should be “corrected in your publication immediately.”

Sherer also writes that Tucker should have called the station before writing about the incident because the Belgrade News editor would have learned new facts from KBZK. “That would be good journalism practice before going to publication,” he wrote.

Tucker responded that no correction would be coming.

Clarification

A few hours later, at about 8:45 p.m., KBZK published a clarification written by Sherer himself.

In the clarification Sherer writes that the final investigation report into Lamb is not complete, only Det. Dustin Lensing’s portion of it, according to Belgrade police Chief E.J. Clark.

Whereas Boone’s original report clearly says police “say they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges,” Clark told KBZK in its clarification that the chief wanted a prosecutor to look over the findings to decide if charges are warranted.

So what went wrong?

The conflict here is over two facts reported in Boone’s original story and then addressed in the station’s clarification:
  • that that the Belgrade police investigation is complete
  • that the Belgrade police will ask that charges be filed against Lamb
As I see it, the first is the result of a misunderstanding. Lensing likely said just what Boone reported, but perhaps Lensing didn’t have the whole picture or Boone didn’t see the whole picture.

The second statement is the result of an assumption. Clark explains in the clarification that the paperwork is referred to as a “request for prosecution,” even though he said the department intends to seek a prosecutor’s opinion on whether charges should be filed.

In her opening paragraph, Boone translated the submission of “request or prosecution” paperwork into “they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges.”

If you’re looking at the words themselves. It’s a reasonable translation, but it’s a translation that also implies something more: that the police believe Lamb did something wrong and charges should be filed against him. Moreover, it implies that police believe so strongly that Lamb did something wrong that they’d speak that fact to a reporter to be presented on the news, even before charges are filed in court.

The wording says something about the guilt or innocence of Paul Lamb, when in fact police are making no such implications. They are only investigating.

Conclusion

At this point, I see this as a matter of hurt pride on all sides. Reporters have famously thick skin, but being accused of getting the facts wrong can get under that skin quickly, as Boone and Sherer showed with their defensive tones.

And when you accuse someone else of having the facts wrong, you should have the appropriate sources on the record. If Tucker had that, he didn’t put it in his commentary.

Also, when a story development seems really good, a reporter should stop, consider, and re-verify it with the source, asking it again to make dead certain it’s right.

We should always remember that people’s reputations can be at stake in these articles.

Shawshank Redemption, (c) Castlerock Entertainment

Corrections and guarding English usage

The Montana State Prison’s spokeswoman public/victim information officer sent out an email Friday to newsrooms across the state (emphasis theirs):

Thank you for your recent articles and coverage of Montana State Prison.  We appreciate your interest in the shortage of correctional officers.

I do have one request.  Over the years, the professionalism of correctional staff has changed substantially.  Whereas the term “guard” was appropriate historically, over the past decade, the training and expectations of prison staff have increased.  We now use the title “correctional officer” to refer to the security staff in Montana’s prisons.  In keeping with that, it would help us if you would refer to prison staff as correctional officers and, where space is limited, as officers.
As one wiseacre in the newsroom noted, I suppose this means calling them “screws” is out?

For the most part, news reporting uses common words. I can’t say it happens with 100 percent certainty and reliability, but so long as the majority of people call them prison guards, newspapers will continue to call them that too.

U.S. Sen. John Walsh speaks during a roundtable discussion with students and education officials about the Federal Student Loan Refinancing Bill on Thursday, April 17, at Montana State University. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Chronicle)

Fierce backlash over John Walsh plagiarism

Montana Sen. John Walsh has been in trouble this week after the New York Times demonstrated that he had plagiarized large portions of the final paper he wrote in the U.S. Army’s War College back in 2007.

Campaign trackers are saying this is a devastating, if not fatal, blow to his bid for election to the Senate this November against Republican Rep. Steve Daines.

I storified some of the reaction I found today. Predictably, veterans are unhappy that Walsh mentioned post-traumatic stress in connection with his plagiarism, an especially troubling prospect considering Walsh has used his military background to court the veteran vote, and according to our own reporter Troy Carter, Montana’s estimated 101,600 military veterans represent 11.4 percent of the voting-age population.

Meanwhile, Democrats are supporting him fully, at least in words. Democratic bloggers are asking why one incident of dishonesty speak for the whole man and wondering at the timing and origin of this political torpedo.

By far, though, my favorite reaction so far is this one, which Twitter brought to me tonight.

The former writing teacher in me is laughing mightily — and then sighing deeply. You know you’ve made the big time when you’re lampooned on the “Tonight Show.” Or, as the distinguished mayor of Bozeman put it this morning:

But seriously…

On a more serious note, some supporters of Walsh have asked in comments on the Chronicle’s Facebook page and on our articles why this is even a story, and as I noted above, they have asked us to do “real reporting” on the timing of this story’s release.

Is this a story? Yes. Does the single incident of academic dishonesty so far found in Walsh’s past define his whole character? Perhaps not. But Walsh is a public figure, and his mistakes — even seemingly small ones — have consequences for him. And right now, those consequences are a War College investigation into his writing and a media firestorm that’s threatening his campaign. The Chronicle simply cannot ignore it. It’s news.

As for the timing of the release — just a week after a poll showed Walsh closing the gap on Daines in the race… Well, you’re adults. You’ve watched “House of Cards.” Do we really need to explain where the news tip probably came from? It’s politics, and tipping off reporters isn’t illegal.

Regardless of how the Times got the story, once it broke, it was news. And you can’t put that cat back in the bag. Walsh is riding a tidal wave in a dinghy with only a tiny oar to steer with. We’ll have to see where he washes up, if he survives.

Today on the TV news…

One of our reporters found this while browsing the TV news stations’ sites today. I wish the couple luck, but is this really worth of posting to the TV news site? Labeled as “continuous news”?

screenshot

 

Also today in things that probably don’t belong on TV news websites:

screenshotKBZK lists an advertising job with the station in the news stream on its homepage — not differentiated as an advertisement or anything.

Also, Colorado’s “news leader” posts “breaking news” video: Watch a 10-pound block of ice melt live.

Vaccines and junk journalism

Good grief. KBZK posted a story yesterday with the following headline: “Experts: childhood vaccines deemed safe.”

Was this really news on July 1, 2014? Did we not know this one, simple thing before?

Granted, there are anti-vaccination people out there who rely on junk science and exaggerated anecdotes to form their opinions about the safety of vaccines. But, and this is important, they are the minority and they are — and let me be frank — fringe-case nutjobs.

By allowing the pretense that vaccines are unsafe — because otherwise why would we need a news story to say that they are safe — KBZK is pushing out the worst sort of click-bait junk journalism that is aimed to appeal to the controversy and not to the facts.

What worse, when they posted the story to Facebook, the TV station prefaced it with this inane question:

Vaccines and junk journalism

I won’t go into the reasons vaccines are safe; scientists have done that or me over and over again. More evidence of their safety are the decades upon decades of vaccines being used to reduce the number of deaths from diseases. Someone I know also like to point out that if you need more evidence of the hazards of life without vaccinations, visit a cemetery and look for baby and child graves from a certain time period. Then remember that you can vaccinate against polio.

For some reason in this country, people now distrust scientists. I think that comes in part because the Internet makes it so easy to publish nonscientific points of view to a large audience and make them look credible. Plus, the sins of some untrustworthy scientists have given opponents of science, who usually have a financial stake in the opinion they’re supporting or a total ignorance of how the scientific process works (or both), ammunition to bluster that all scientists are corrupt, money-grubbing quacks.

On top of that, in the pursuit of “balance,” journalism often forgets that a story isn’t balanced that gives equal time to nutcases who are demonstrably, scientifically wrong. By making it seem as if the anti-vaccination stance is as valid as the real science and then prompting people to discuss whether the “risks” of vaccination are worth it, KBZK is perpetuating dangerous misinformation.

Shame.

Debating when to publish public documents

Chronicle crime reporter Whitney Bermes got into a discussion this morning with Missoulian crime reporter Kathryn Haake over documents with stories online.

Particularly, Bermes was surprised that the Missoulian published the ticket along with the affidavit in the case of a 46-year-old Butte man accused of driving drunk the wrong way for 20 miles on Interstate 90.

The ticket, as opposed to the affidavit, contains information such as the man’s exact date of birth, his driver’s license number and his home address.

The full Twitter exchange is in the Storify embedded below (and linked here).

I can understand the differences in choices about publishing information online. The Chronicle chooses not to publish the ticket because these people are merely accused of crimes and because the ticket contains such personally identifying information. Haake made clear that the Missoulian publishes the ticket because “it’s public record.” That’s a fair difference of journalistic opinion. If a little harsh. (Do they publish documents in rape cases too? Because those documents are also public.)

What stood out from the conversation most to me was Haake’s response to Whitney’s initial question:

That shows a reporter too ready to jump to the conclusion that a person is guilty before they’ve had a crack at due process. That makes me uncomfortable.

I also found great irony in the difference in opinion between a reporter at this branch of a Lee Enterprises paper and the editor at another one.

On March 28, the Billings Gazette earned the ire of media critics when Jim Romenesko linked to a Feb. 23 editor’s column titled “The Hidden Freedom of the Press.”

In it, editor Darrell Ehrlick explains why the paper chose not to run a copy of state Sen. Jason Priest’s affidavit online when he was accused of assault. He said, apart from the case involving children, that the documents, “if true, paint a picture that is deeply troubling.”

More importantly, I believe the court documents could paint Priest in a harsh light. And, just as much as I am a fervent supporter of the First Amendment, I am also a big believer in the due process that says it’s up to the courts to decide Priest’s innocence or guilt.

This is a discussion we have had concerning mugshots here at the BDC a while back. We decided that the en masse publishing of photographs of people only accused of crimes was not something we wanted to do because those photos can imply guilt. You’ll of course note that we do publish photos of people in court when we write stories about their cases, though. Clearly, there is disagreement among Montana papers over handling mugshots too.

Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone

On being late on the Yellowstone quake story

This tweet met me when I opened up the Twitter this morning:

It seems there was an earthquake in Yellowstone over the weekend, the biggest in three decades, in fact. And as it came along with a swarm of other earthquakes, people (and the media) naturally assumed a connection to the supervolcano.

Scientists say there is no danger of an eruption, but as Blake Maxwell at the Magpie points out in his tweet, there was no way to know that from the Chronicle, until I got into the office this morning, that is.

I’m not sure whether Maxwell is right about the lack of this news from the Chronicle being a sign of the newspaper apocalypse. But still, other news organizations got it out over the weekend while we didn’t — even the Magpie managed to “cover” it by linking to an AP story in the Flathead Beacon in its aggregator.

(In fact, considering that the story has been on the Associated Press for some time, I was surprised to find that it hadn’t moved onto our site yesterday. I’m going to look into why that didn’t happen.)

In reality, it was a minor quake in a sparsely populated area that barely shook anything in West or Gardiner, and there were no reports of damage or injuries. Objectively, it really wasn’t all that newsworthy, my inner defense mechanism says.

And while that all may true, determining newsworthiness isn’t a 100-percent objective process. The quake was a story people would have read — had we carried it and shared it widely. It is, therefore, something we should have had sooner.

There’s no way around the lack of a Monday paper, not unless the company’s profits suddenly soar and stay up consistently. And with no Monday edition to put out, there is of course little justification to staff the newsroom fully on Sundays, which means that we’ll be weak on that day. It’s a fact of modern newspaper life — not necessarily a fact of the newspaper apocalypse.

Yet even a skeletal staff should have been paying close enough attention to hear about the Yellowstone quake. Even if they didn’t feel it shake, they should have felt it newsworthy.

clickbait

NBC Montana reporting non-news from Chicago

A couple days ago, a man named Panson De Oaks wrote to us on Facebook, linking to a video from the TV station WGN in Chicago. The video was a segment on vacation destinations — mostly high-end, expensive ones. Included was a vacation destination in Montana, Paws Up, a “glamping” destination in the Missoula area. When the guest on the video announces the destination is Montana, one of the anchors sort of goes “Ugh.”

It’s clearly a city-folk reaction to activities such as camping, rock climbing and horseback riding, but De Oaks felt that it was a frontal assault on Montana’s reputation. A screenshot of his initial post on the BDC page is below.

Panson De Oaks screenshot

Before I responded to him, I clicked on the link to his Facebook profile, which was mostly private. However, on his “About” tab, one of the websites listed for him is: http://www.pawsup.com. A Google search for his name turns up a more specific connection. De Oaks is the managing director of The Resort at Paws Up, at least according to his LinkedIn profile.

When I noted to him via Facebook that we wouldn’t be getting involved in his company’s dispute with WGN over coverage of his resort, he called it an “attack by a news organization against the state of MT.”

Panson De Oaks 2

So a businessman felt snubbed because of an anchorwoman’s mild distaste for non-urban outdoor activities. I informed him we’d not be getting involved and left it at that.

However, NBC Montana didn’t leave it at that.

No, in an example of unsourced, un-bylined, click-bait journalism at its finest, KTVM posted a skeletal story about the “incident” with the non-news headline “Chicago anchor doesn’t appear to be a fan of MT” and replete with a big Montana state flag image and “UGH” in all-caps with an exclamation point. There is no mention of the clear source of the story, De Oaks, who posted the same news tip to KTVM’s Facebook page as he did to our page. He seems to have gotten a more more receptive response:

KTVM De Oaks


Update

There were some fun new developments in this case of click-baiting this morning. NBC Montana Today posted this message to its Facebook page:

NBC Montana baiting

 

Yep, that’s NBC Montana’s morning show bragging about trying to bait anchor Robin Baumgarten into responding to the non-story the station had already run.

Here are the relevant tweets embedded, starting with Painter’s post at 5:41 this morning:

And Baumgarten’s replies beginning six minutes later:

I suppose I could take this as a journalism lesson. If my story isn’t generating enough buzz, try contacting the sources you didn’t contact before you wrote the story and then ask them to react publicly to the story you already wrote about them. For bonus points, make sure to involve yourself personally somehow, like by inviting said source to an activity you already know they’ll reject.

Celebrity excitement in the newsroom

A few of the staffers here in the newsroom are crazy about John Mayer, so when I typed “Bozeman” into the search box on social media tracking site Topsy today and these tweets turned up near the top, it elicited plenty of excitement.

Yes, that’s John Mayer and Katy Perry at the Wal-Mart in Bozeman.

Celebrity sightings aren’t rare in Bozeman. A friend of mine who worked at Barnes & Noble often saw celebs in the store, and there are plenty of tales of the sightings in Paradise Valley, including the recent recap by the Montana Pioneer of Steve McQueen’s time there.

There’s no grand point to this post, other than to show how a couple of nine-day-old tweets can get the John Mayer fans in the newsroom bouncing off the walls.

Perhaps you have a celebrity counter story? Share in the comments.

Montana expands inmate notifications for victims

Montana Department of CorrectionsThe notification system used by the Montana Department of Corrections to let victims know about changes to an inmate’s status or location has received some upgrades, the department said Thursday.

The Victim Information and Notification Everyday system, or VINE, has added text messaging and an iOS and Android app to the telephone, email and TTY notifications that were already available.

Last year, VINE also added tracking for Montana offenders on probation and parole. Before, it had tracked only those in prisons and pre-release centers. It does not track juveniles or county or federal inmates.

In 2013, the VINE system sent some 30,000 messages to victims, law enforcement and court personnel, journalists and others.

VINE is provided by the Kentucky-based Appriss Company, and the upgrade was paid for by a federal Justice Department grant and funding from the 2012 Legislature.