VR exposes slippery slope for Daily
The wake of the story about the Vail Resorts sale that wasn’t has us questioning our standards for sources.What has served us well in covering the wacky Kobe Bryant rape case perhaps failed us with the evolving story of VR putting itself up for sale and taking bids. The existing standard is this: We have to know, not merely be pretty darn sure. And the information has to be deemed relevant in real life.The information must come from primary sources – people with firsthand knowledge, or core documents. Secondhand sources – someone who heard something from someone who they think knows, or a document such as an e-mail about something from another document – these are not good enough for publication in the news columns. Sometimes to the chagrin of my colleagues, I hold fast to this standard. You see, there’s a third leg to this stool. That’s credibility, a concept in something of a crisis in my line of work. Covering the rape case against NBA star Kobe Bryant, especially last summer before hardly any official information came out, tested the news media’s standards like no story before it. A lot of normally credible news organizations were fabulously wrong about basic facts of the case, which they reported erroneously and often. CNN, ABC, NBC, Fox, ESPN, The Denver Post, Sports Illustrated and on and on. The Post even carried a story about how ABC changed their standards, which I don’t believe they were following anyway, to one “credible” source now would be good enough to report. I remember thinking it would be nice if they even did that.At the Daily, we were fortunate. We had a few primary sources and managed to avoid the big error traps while no doubt driving everyone else nuts. But it was tempting to cave in to deciding that a secondhand source who seemed like they knew was good enough. And sure enough, if we had gone broken our standard just that once, well, we would have been wrong. Perhaps even libelously wrong. No so with the coverage of Vail Resorts putting itself on the sales block. Hearing the annual rumors that this summer seemed louder than usual, our one primary source was the increase in the company’s stock traffic and strangely high price for this time of year. So we reported on that and noted that the grapevine was buzzing hard. We also discussed in the commentary section what we’d heard from secondhand sources while being clear that this wasn’t firsthand information. A week later, the Denver Post – using the same secondhand sources that we do – deemed the thickness of the smoke enough to identify the fire underneath and to put names on some of the rumored suitors. They followed this pattern throughout the story, without taking the trouble to explain that their “many” sources were all folks who heard something from someone who heard something from someone else who surely knew.The Rocky Mountain News, which at first wouldn’t go as far as tying the stock activity to the possibility of a sale, caved in spectacular fashion and named one of the secondhand sources while delivering what sounded like news about who seemed to be VR’s imminent buyer, Henry Kravis and company. Well, our best source – a better one than the one they named, incidentally – said Kravis never bid. That appears to be the case, although even our best source was still second hand. All we really had, again, was the dip in price and rise in traffic of VR’s stock to go by. Never mind that we kept pace with the Post, albeit in the commentary section with the gossip and never with the detail about that companies that did not buy Vail Resorts. There’s a perception, at least among some inside and outside the paper, that we missed the story. That we suffered the indignity of indignities in this business. That we got beat.A couple of folks at the paper have expressed the thought that we should re-evaluate our standards for sourcing in light of Vail Resorts. I’m reluctant, but maybe we should consider a third option for VR, which is to be commended for the discipline it holds on its executives when reporters call. If we judge these secondhand sources as solid enough and there are enough of them saying close to the same thing, we go ahead and use their information but identify clearly that these are secondhand sources and not true insiders. Maybe that’s the way to get around our conundrum. Hmmm. Watching another paper run away with a story is frustrating. Still, I think we should be a lot more bothered by breaking a standard for the sake of one story while actually taking a big chance of eroding our credibility in the longer run. We could run all sorts of very interesting stories based on secondhand sources, believe me. Relatively few would actually be true, of course.Before my industry’s current infatuation with “building readership” these past couple of years, the fad focused on our slippage of “credibility” and how to win it back.No group, with perhaps the exception of NASA after the occasional disaster, studies its own navel with the fervor of the journalism world. And no one pays less attention to its own findings. We’re simply not believed as much as we once were, research tells us. So what do we do about it? Well, it’s hard not to be cynical about my own profession. For the sake of competitive advantage, one big paper can’t wait a day and so declares Dick Gephardt will the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee, just as last summer several organizations (some using each other as sources) reported there was a big ruckus in Kobe Bryant’s room heard by many that night among the many reports on this case that were just flat wrong.The lesson doesn’t seem to ever carry very far, though, not even to the next story. If informed gossip was good enough for the Post to run in the news columns, why couldn’t it be good enough for the little Daily? It’s an easy question to answer, but damn hard to live by.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or email@example.com, and is based in Vail, Colorado.