Tuesday, June 14, 2005
Journalism 101: Stephen Spruiell has an interesting article that gives "the rest of the story" on a Seattle Post-Intelligencer column that purported to show Marine recruiters attempting to "draft" a recruit.
The column is one-sided and outrageous. There are all sorts of quotes attributed to unnamed Marines, but the source for all of those quotes (and the main source for the column) is the young man's mother.
Spruiell provides the Marines side of the story -- which suggests an that they have an 18-year-old kid who tries to please everyone. Frankly, the Marines might be able to give the kid a spine.
But the journalistic part of the entire episode is troublesome. The columist, Susan Paynter, doesn't give the standard disclaimer that she tried to get both sides of the story until the very end -- it should've been much higher in the story.
Second, it appears from Spruiell's reporting that the story might have fallen into the margins of the old "too good to check" trap.
Given the number of contradictions and important nuances Paynter missed by failing to get the Marine’s side of the story, one has to wonder how strenuous an effort Paynter made to bring that story to her readers. I grew curious when Sgt. Chau told me last Friday that Paynter had never contacted him. Since then, I have been in touch with Paynter via e-mail. She responded:
Let me simply explain that, as I said, I did attempt to reach the two recruiters involved in Axel Cobb’s situation and the supervisors at the Burlington office out of which they operate. In my judgment that was the best and most direct route from which to get their version of events, rather than getting a boilerplate statement from a spokesperson further up the chain. In two days they did not respond.
I wrote to her again, asking whom she tried to contact in the Marines. She replied, “I will continue to pursue, on my own, the military side I have already attempted to obtain. But I don’t feel any obligation to provide you with names of my sources.” Thinking she misunderstood, I again asked just for the names of the Marines she tried to contact, but that e-mail has gone unanswered.
Monday, I asked Sgt. Chau, Staff Sgt. Marquez, Staff Sgt. David J. Adams (who runs the Burlington office), and Lt. Col. Robert Coty (who oversees all these Marines) if Susan Paynter had ever tried to contact any of them. All of them told me no. Staff Sgt. Adams said, “I actually had a conversation with all my Marines on this specific subject, and I asked all my Marines, ‘Has anyone been contacted by this writer?’ and no one’s been contacted in either Bellingham or Burlington.”
I've mentioned it before, but I covered the Air Force for two years. Paynter doesn't know what she's talking about when she's talking about the "best and most direct route." When you're looking for an on-the-record, authoritative statement from the military -- and just about every other large company or bureaucracy -- you go to the public information officer.
You can try going directly to the Marines involved -- but leaving one message on an answering machine and then giving up is not evidence of journalistic due diligence. If you can't get the "best and most direct route," then you take the "boilerplate statement from a spokesperson further up the chain."
Paynter's suggestion that she's continuing to "work her sources" is questionable in light of Spruiell's reporting. Paynter writes three columns a week, and her next opportunity to do the follow-up reporting (that should have been first-day reporting) is Friday. I wait in breathless anticipation, expecting little.