Journalism without facts

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Posted by Anti-blog matter on November 03, 2012 at 19:01:58:

Brought to you by the letter W for Wisconsin State Journal
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Byline: November 01, 2012 4:45 am • JOHN SMALLEY | Wisconsin State Journal editor

The story, or lack thereof, involved politics, an election campaign, supposed acts of violence and threats of more, along with racism and sexuality.

In other words, all the elements of a high-octane tale.

Problem is, none of it was true.

Welcome to the difference between actual journalism — the kind of work we strive for every day at the Wisconsin State Journal — and the quasi-journalism/partisan mongering that pervades our public discourse these days.

It can be hard to tell the difference when some bloggers, radio personalities and partisan groups show great interest in the news but lack the ability or desire to do the balanced reporting that defines legitimate news coverage. Journalists don't take those shortcuts, even when it means getting criticized from those who want us to jump on this bandwagon or that, depending on the controversy of the day.

Indeed, the strange and sad case involving political campaign volunteer Kyle Wood that played out in Madison late last week and over the weekend is a clear example of the distinction between credible journalism based on thorough reporting and the shock-value "news" that leaps at controversy and is largely fueled by personal opinion.

The episode involving Wood, a former volunteer in the campaign of GOP congressional candidate Chad Lee, who is running against Democrat Mark Pocan for the open seat in the 2nd District, caused a mighty stir in the blogosphere and on the radio last week.

Wood, who has since been dismissed by Lee's campaign for fabricating the entire episode, first reported to police he had been attacked and beaten at his home, and tied the supposed beating to the fact that he is gay and is not supporting Pocan, who also is gay, in the congressional campaign.

Enter the finger-pointing and blaming opportunities galore. Several national and local bloggers quickly jumped on the story, and it went viral.

But, wait, there's more. On Monday, the story went further off the rails, when the conservative website Media Trackers published a story suggesting Pocan's husband, Philip Frank, had sent Wood a series of threatening, racist and sexually suggestive text messages before the alleged attack on Wood. Media Trackers, by the way, promotes itself as being dedicated to "quality fact-based journalism."

As ludicrous as this all sounds, various bloggers and others in town actually reported this rubbish. We did not, mostly because our reporters and editors following the news tip were not able to substantiate it.

We checked and we called, and we called and we checked some more. In the end, there were too many holes in the story, too many uncorroborated details and too few sources to confirm what really happened. So we waited. Meanwhile, we were pelted by partisans wondering why we refused to publish this very important story. Clearly, they said, our liberal bias was at play because we weren't racing to publish a story that, apparently, was going to make Pocan look bad. (On another day, it could easily have been our conservative bias at play if we didn't publish a story that would make a Republican look bad).

By late Monday afternoon, Madison police issued an updated incident report, making it clear that Wood recanted his story about the beating and the text messages. In Tuesday's paper, we did our best to inform readers what had transpired from start to finish.

We're not perfect here at the newspaper, and we sometimes make mistakes in our reporting. But we have a code of ethics we must follow in our work, and a set of standards we firmly adhere to.

I'm glad both were solidly in play this week as we considered our options in dealing with this sorry mess. And I hope this story, or lack thereof, makes people think twice the next time they hear a wild tale coming from someone also pushing a point of view.

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