How to cover a hoax
Each week, one of the Vail Daily’s editors will talk about how our editorial staff “makes the news”: how we get stories and deal with sources, and how we write, edit and present the articles we publish each day for our readers – in print and on the Internet. With a relentless wave of newspaper scandals shattering Americans’ faith in the media, we’ve decided we should try our best to work with the same transparency we demand of the public institutions and governments we cover. Also, we hope you’ll be interested in what it takes to put the paper out. Let’s start with the recent case of the East Vail man who is accused of faking his own abduction, and why the first two stories we wrote – in which we reported that police said he was the victim of a kidnapping – were the only stories we could write, at the time. On the day after the incident, we received a tip that a man had been kidnapped at gunpoint from his home in East Vail while his terrified wife watched. The initial report said the two “kidnappers” took the man, Michael Moore, away in his own car. When we called the Vail police, they confirmed they were investigating such an incident, and were still looking for the man and two “kidnappers.” The detective didn’t tell us she found the story suspicious, even though we did. So why did we leave our own doubts out of the first two stories? For one, kidnapping is a sensitive issue and, had we gone with our hunch – and had it been an actual kidnapping – we would have insulted the true victims and seriously let our readers down. Our reporters, particularly when Moore turned up at a friend’s house in Avon, certainly asked the detective if the kidnapping story sounded fishy. Up until Moore was arrested Sunday, the detective said the case was being treated as full-fledged kidnapping. In the absence of any “official” doubt, we were in no position to report otherwise.Crime reporting requires great care, as it well should in a system in which people are innocent until proven guilty. That’s why crime stories are heavily attributed and full of drama-sapping words like “allegedly” and “apparently.” It’s why we write a certain person has been arrested “on suspicion” or “for investigation” of a certain crime. Had we called Moore’s story fishy, had we called him a liar, without the corroboration of police – our only solid source at the time – we would have opened ourselves to major criticism, not to mention libel. We also left out a few rumors that turned out to be dead wrong. And because cops can make mistakes and sometimes charges are overblown or toned down later by prosecutors, we are adamant about not convicting someone in the paper. We also know that simply connecting someone’s name and picture to a crime, no matter how heavily qualified, can be condemning on its own. Still, our job is to tell the public when people are being accused of crimes, especially the more serious ones. Finally, in the early stages of a crime, the cops are often the only source, so if we are going to write anything at all, we have to write what they tell us. Victims and suspects often are reluctant to speak to the newspaper. The former is traumatized, and the latter is hesitant to say anything that can be used against him or her in court. So we and our readers didn’t really get “tricked.” Stories change from one day to the next, even in the sometimes drowsy Vail Valley news cycle. As reporters and editors, we have to trust – and sometimes stifle – our hunches. Instincts can put on the road great reporting or major disasters. Most importantly, we have to avoid the desire to rush everything into the paper before confirming all the facts we can confirm, or simple because it will make an eye-catching headline. (Newsweek recently got into hot water over just this issue.) And as of this writing, Michael Moore’s innocence is still in place until he is proven guilty in a court of law.City Editor Matt Zalaznick can be reached at email@example.com or 949-0555, ext. 606. Vail, Colorado
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