Darts & Laurels 2012

2012's media highlights and lowlights

DART for inflaming an already tense situation: Business Insider, The Daily Caller, Michelle Malkin, NBC News Following Trayvon Martin’s death in February, several media outlets embarrassed themselves with inaccurate reporting and selective editing. Business Insider and The Daily Caller published what were thought to be negative photos of Martin, BI’s from a white-supremacist website. One of the photos on Michelle Malkin’s website said to be of Martin turned out to be of someone else. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman (who claims he shot Martin in self-defense), is suing NBC for “accidentally” editing Zimmerman’s 911 call for a segment on the Today show to make the shooting seem racially motivated.

LAUREL for going deep: Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and SCOTUSblog In political terms, 2012 shall be known as the Year of the Niche Bloggers. These two did great work that also showed up their mainstream media competition. On his blog, which has been licensed by The New York Times since 2010, Silver’s statistical method correctly predicted the results of all 50 states and foresaw an Obama win while other pundits and pollsters said the election was too close to call.

When the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act came in, journalists scurried to be the first with the story, but in their haste, several (most famously CNN and Fox News, but also Huffington Post, Time, and NPR) got it wrong. Not SCOTUSblog, which live-blogged the ruling, and took its time in posts to make sure it got everything right. The result: 5.3 million hits (more than 10 times its previous daily high). The Court may want to reconsider its decision not to give SCOTUSblog press credentials.

DART for grade inflation: Charles Jaco, KTVI, St. Louis, MO When you’re interviewing a senatorial candidate who says, as Todd Akin did in August, that women’s bodies “have ways to try to shut that whole thing down” and prevent pregnancies in cases of “legitimate rape,” you might want to deviate from your interview script and ask what that’s about. But Charles Jaco’s brain apparently shut that whole thing down, and he followed up with a question about the economy. Yet in hindsight, he thought his interview rated a “B+.” That must be some kind of bell curve.

LAUREL for good reporter’s instincts: James Carter IV Who knows how the presidential election might have gone if James Carter, grandson of Jimmy, hadn’t been curious about YouTube snippets of a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Boca Raton—the event at which the candidate dismissed Obama supporters as the “47 percent” of the nation who are “dependent upon the government, who believe that they are victims.” Playing a hunch, Carter and veteran reporter David Corn tracked down the source and the full video, which became a big scoop for Mother Jones.

DART for overly hasty identifications: ABC News Handy tip for ABC News: Make sure you’ve got the right guy! In a hastily assembled profile of James Holmes, accused of a July shooting spree in a Colorado movie theater that killed 12, ABC’s Brian Ross announced that he was a member of the Tea Party. Surely there’s only one James Holmes in Colorado, right? Oops. (And the Newtown, CT, shootings in December provided a horrific reminder about the need to doublecheck before going public with IDs.)

LAUREL for changing minds about retouched bodies: Julia Bluhm When Julia Bluhm, 14, from Waterville, ME, got tired of looking at heavily doctored photos of young models in her fashion magazines, she didn’t just moan about it; she launched a petition on Change.org, which got more than 50,000 signatures. This got the attention of Seventeen editor Ann Shoket, who in July announced a Body Peace Treaty and pledged to keep it real for future fashion spreads.

DART for being copycats: Fareed Zakaria, Jonah Lehrer, Joe Milliken Fareed Zakaria was caught “accidentally” sampling New Yorker prose in a Time article last summer yet emerged relatively unscathed—just a few days’ suspension from his approximately 1,476 jobs and a resignation from Yale’s governing board. For this he should probably thank Jonah Lehrer, whose multiple journalistic transgressions exhausted everyone’s outrage.

Even so, Vermont freelancer Joe Milliken managed to plumb new depths. After he was accused of covering a sports event he never attended, lifting quotes and details from other accounts to fill in the gaps, he tried to clear his name on Poynter. Yet the evidence clearly showed that Milliken not only used another reporter’s quotes without attribution, he also altered them—making him both a plagiarist and a fabricator. Next time, Milliken, quit while you’re behind.

DART for foul balls: ESPN What is going on in Bristol, CT? As rival Deadspin gleefully reported, ESPN made some big, weird mistakes this year, with ESPN.com senior editor Lynn Hoppes at the center of all of them.

First, he hired Sarah Phillips to freelance for the site, apparently without a reference check. Turns out she’s a scam artist. ESPN terminated its relationship with her in the spring.

Then Deadspin caught Hoppes lifting content from Wikipedia (typos and all) and press releases. At the time, ESPN called this “journalistic laziness” that “fell short of our editorial standards,” although ESPN’s ombudsman did not see fit to mention this on its blog, and ESPN.com did nothing to change or update Hoppes’s posts until a college student asked VP/executive editor John Walsh about the matter in December. Walsh responded that Deadspin’s John Koblin harbored a grudge against Hoppes for stealing his girlfriend, which came as a surprise to Koblin, to his boyfriend, and to those who expect more of Walsh. (Walsh told Deadspin he never mentioned Koblin’s name and merely said he’d heard a rumor that there was a “romantic rivalry,” but several students present at the time maintain that Walsh mentioned Koblin by name.) Only after lots of unfortunate publicity did ESPN update Hoppes’s posts, deleting 12 outright and amending three others.

LAUREL for being immune to Internet hysteria: Marilyn Hagerty, Grand Forks Herald When Hagerty, the Herald’s octogenarian food critic, reviewed Grand Forks’s newly opened Olive Garden in March, she wasn’t expecting to become the Internet’s favorite foodie. As her son James recounted in The Wall Street Journal, when he broke the news that she had gone viral, she replied, “Could you tell me what viral means?” After more than 60 years in journalism, Hagerty paid no attention to the social media maelstrom. “I’m working on my Sunday column and I’m going to play bridge this afternoon,” she explained, “so I don’t have time to read all this crap.”

DART for the most imaginary friends: Karen Jeffrey, Cape Cod Times In December, her editors at the Cape Cod Times announced solemnly that they “have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998, when we began archiving stories electronically.” Jeffrey, an employee since 1981, “no longer works for the Cape Cod Times.”

DART for forgetting what “real-time” means: NBC NBC was so thrilled about teaming up with Twitter for the London Olympics in August, that it didn’t stop to think that maybe it wasn’t the best plan to promote the games on the ultimate instant-gratification platform while choosing to maximize ad dollars by delaying broadcast of the most popular events until prime time. Tired of having the results spoiled for events they couldn’t watch for several hours yet, Americans used Twitter to air unsportsmanlike opinions about the network.

DART for callowness: Vice magazine After crowing about its access to on-the-lam software pioneer John McAfee (“We are with John McAfee Right Now, Suckers”) and inadvertently exposing the accused murderer’s Guatemalan hideout via the metadata in its photos, Vice then attempted to backpedal—but the damage to its own reputation was done (and McAfee was arrested).

DART for systemic poor judgment: Britain’s waning media empire It was another annus horribilis for Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, accused in the Fleet Street phone-hacking scandal, and various personnel at the BBC (including George Entwistle and new New York Times CEO Mark Thompson), who got caught up in the Jimmy Savile row. To top off the UK’s display of journalistic prowess, the 2,000-page Leveson Inquiry into media ethics included verbatim passages from Wikipedia, one of which erroneously credited a 25-year-old Californian, Brett Straub, with cofounding The Independent. (His friends added him to the entry as a prank.) Whoops!

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.