Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: Getting precise about precision

The previous post to this Blog compared the way the Los Angeles Times has reported the child welfare story to the Times own Code of Ethics on the matter of sources.  The ethics code also has an admirable section on “precision.” Let’s see how well it’s being followed when the Times covers child welfare:

The ethics code says: We live and work in a media environment suffused with hyperbole. It is The Times’ intention to stand distinctly apart from that world and speak straightforwardly to readers.
But Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, in his defense of Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Los Angeles Times, writes:   Presumably, in the view of … critics, a news organization that finds evidence of mismanagement or poor execution of policies should say nothing for fear of how a panicked bureaucracy might respond.
The ethics code says: We do not exaggerate sourcing (a single source is a “source,” not “sources”).
But Daniel Heimpel in The Huffington Post cites a Therolf story in which Therolf  says: "Others who have studied the waiver program say that earlier indicators were already suggesting problems."
The "others" were actually one person, Charlie Ferguson …
(And, of course, Ferguson’s comments were taken entirely out of context).
The ethics code says: We do not manufacture, embroider or distort quotes …
But, as Heimpel points out: On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in [an Office of Independent Review] report [OIR Chief Attorney Mike] Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. 

Granted, Therolf never quoted Gennaco as using the word “hid” in print.  Rather, he simply wrote that "The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department hid dozens of cases from the public," with no attribution to a person or document at OIR at all.  Ultimately he could claim his source is “unpublished reporting.”
The ethics code says: It is unacceptable to hedge an unverified or unverifiable assertion with words such as “arguably” or “perhaps.” Our job is to tell readers what is true, not what might be.
 But what about hedging an unverified assertion with the word “presumably”? (See first item above).  And what about variations on the classic hedge line “raises questions” – like this one from a Therolf story on November 13:
 Among the problems Ploehn faces are questions about her management of a controversial federal and state program known as the Title IV-E waiver.
That’s followed in the next paragraph by a repeat of the out-of-context statistic from the waiver evaluation.
Yes, the Times has quite an admirable section of its Code of Ethics concerning precision. I can’t wait to find out precisely when Therolf and his editors plan to start following it.

Tomorrow:  Why do reporters like Therolf take the easy way out and avoid writing about families whose children are wrongly taken away?  A much better reporter at a much smaller paper on the other side of the country has one possible answer.