It’s bad enough for journalists these days, as people who don’t like what we write simply announce that our work is “fake news.” The last thing anyone in this field needs is something to give these people ammunition.
In September, I informed our readers of the troubling allegation that a veteran political reporter, Mike Ward, had fabricated individuals for a story published earlier this summer. I promised a thorough investigation of Ward’s work and that I would share the results with our readers. Today’s story by David Wood, whom we hired as a freelance investigative reporter, details our findings.
As a result of this investigation, the Houston Chronicle is retracting eight stories written by Ward. In each case, the story’s premise was based on sourcing we cannot confirm. We are correcting an additional 64 stories, each of which had at least one unconfirmed source but whose premise did not rest on an unconfirmed source.
Wood’s investigation revealed a disturbing pattern of “no-show” sourcing for Ward’s “person on the street” quotes.
The review included 744 stories, from early August 2018 back to January 2014, when he was hired after a long career at the Austin American-Statesman. A team of three pulled out the names of 275 individuals who were presented as ordinary Texans and made every effort to find them.
Of the 275 people quoted, 122, or 44 percent, could not be found. Those 122 people appeared in 72 stories.
When compared to a random analysis of another reporter’s use of “person on the street” quotes, the researchers found the sources easily more than 80 percent of the time.
According to Wood’s investigation, Ward refused to comment on the situation and would not respond to emails or phone calls on the matter. His Twitter account is set to private now, thus limiting access to his tweets. It does appear he stopped tweeting about two months ago, when this process was really rolling. This is the last original tweet of his I could find:
Once Wood presented his work to the paper, Chronicle officials believed Ward had made up his sources in multiple cases. When confronted with these findings, Ward resigned.
Ward isn’t the first person to do this, nor will he be the last. The journalism landscape is littered with names like Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley and Stephen Glass, where high-profile journalists cut corners and made up sources before they were eventually caught. What makes this situation different is how the risk/reward weightings are completely out of whack.
Blair fabricated content that purported to break ground on the D.C. sniper case and stole content from other journalists or invented information involving high-profile military pieces. Cooke’s fabrication, an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, earned her the Pulitzer Prize, which she forfeited upon discovery of her malfeasance. Kelley was also involved in a Pulitzer-Prize hunt as he wove fictions regarding his face-to-face meeting with a suicide bomber and being part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Glass took journalistic fictions to new heights as he created everything from a 15-year-old hacker to a cult of people who worshiped former President George H.W. Bush.
The sources that Ward created were the kinds of people who were essentially inconsequential individuals or the types of people who might have been located with additional reporting efforts. His “regular Texans” talked about people who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey but still planned to vote for Republicans and citizens talking about the right to carry firearms. The quotes themselves were solid, but not the kind that would add so much to the story as to require their presence.
It’s unclear what would lead a person of Ward’s stature into a situation like this, however, the results are that he no longer has a job in journalism and the rest of us have the public looking at us with suspicious eyes.