Even small errors in journalism, like getting a date wrong or misspelling a street name, can cost you a great amount of credibility with your readers. So, I’m wondering what the folks of Boulder, Colorado thought when they woke up Saturday to find their paper had retracted a story due to massive journalistic fraud:
The Camera is retracting an article that appeared in its Sept. 11 edition, headlined “Reflections on finding peace.” The newspaper has concluded the article substantially misrepresented the stories of its primary subjects — Mark Pfundstein, John Maynard and Danna Hirsch.
The Camera has determined that multiple statements attributed to these sources, including purported direct quotations, were fabricated.
What follows this embarrassing, but seemingly tame, opening is a list of at least 30 egregious errors and fabrications in a story The Boulder Daily Camera published for its 9/11 edition. The paper itself notes that “this list does not necessarily constitute every error in the article,” which at this point felt like the paper said, “Somebody found ANOTHER screw up? Oh, hell, we give up on this…”
It’s not always possible to fact check every quote, nor has every source who claimed “That’s not what I said,” been right about that statement, but this is beyond ridiculous. Of the errors listed, here are a couple that I think a semi-decent editor would have caught:
- The headline’s labeling of the subjects of the story as “survivors of 9/11.” None were present at any of the attack locations.
- The location of the Pentagon.
- The timing of some events on 9/11.
The story is truly retracted, as in I couldn’t find it anywhere online and others who had been tracking it noted it “suddenly went ‘poof.'”
(UPDATE: Shout out to Ted Bridis who found the original story via press reader. You can see it here.)
The paper didn’t identify the writer or what “internal steps” the folks at the paper planned to take in this situation. However, journalist and educator Corey Hutchins took to Substack to fill in a few of these holes:
According to the bio on the paper’s website, Morganroth worked for the Prairie Mountain Media organization since December and has more than 20 years of experience in media:
(That said, her LinkedIn profile is a bit less aggrandizing and a bit messier in terms of jobs and a timeline, which includes a photo business that seems to have started when she was in third grade, so in the wake of a situation like this 9/11 story, I’d be really interested to see an objective and complete look at who she is and what she’s done.)
When it comes to situations like this one, the reason for blogging about it is to point out things that we can all learn from. In this case, I think there are multiple “teachable moments” related to all of the aspects of this debacle:
BE TRANSPARENT: The Daily Camera was about half right in its actions related to this mess. First, it retracted the story. Second, it tried to make amends to its sources and readers (kinda). Third, it promised to deal with the situation so it wouldn’t happen again.
Where it failed was in several key areas of transparency, such as killing the story from its archives entirely. Although several other major media outlet such as Rolling Stone have done similar things, the model the Atlantic used in regard to Ruth Shalit Barrett’s retracted piece on parents obsessed over niche sports seems to be the best. The magazine ran the entire correction/retraction under her byline and included a PDF of the original article for people to read so they could see what the editors initially saw.
In deleting the original, we all have no real idea what the editors saw or how truly egregious the content was. Sure we can guess from what they’ve told us, but the line about not being sure it caught all the errors doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in my ability to make a guess.
Second, the paper should have released the name of the reporter to the public, but not for the purpose of public shaming. I’m not a huge fan of burning people at the stake on Twitter because they used the wrong pronoun or they mumbled when accidentally combining two words in a way that sound to almost nobody but the highly offendable like a racial slur.
However, when we’re talking about someone who fabricated THIS MUCH stuff in ONE ARTICLE, it probably merits naming names so people can figure out what other stuff this person wrote and how seriously it should be taken.
Between that 9/11 article and her final listing on the publication’s website, Morganroth appears to have written at least five other pieces. How much of those are real? Do they contain errors that might need correcting? If they readers don’t know who faked the 9/11 story, how can they feel secure in the work ANYONE at the paper did?
Think about it like this: If you went home to eat some leftovers for dinner tonight, and your roommate said, “Hey, I ate some leftovers for lunch and I’ve been throwing up all day,” wouldn’t it be highly likely that you’d like to know what they ate? And if they DIDN’T tell you, what’s the likelihood you’d be calling for a pizza instead of touching anything in the fridge?
By explaining who did what, the paper could limit the credibility damage and support the people at the paper who continue to abide by the ethical standards of journalism.
START DIGGING: Every time something like this happens, I go back to what my friend Allison used to tell me about shady folks she covered her investigative reporting days: “They never did it just once.”
Stephen Glass fabricated entire stories at The New Republic, with an internal investigation finding 27 of his 41 pieces were either partially or completely made up. (Some suspected even more had falsehoods or fakery in them.)
When Jayson Blair was caught making up content in The New York Times, researchers found he was faking things as far back as his time with The Diamondback student newspaper at Maryland.
When Glass did an interview with “60 Minutes” a few years after he was caught, he outlined the way in which he took a small step into the world of fraud with a single faked quote. After that, it was a few more of them until eventually, he was making up things out of whole cloth.
I could be wrong in my assumption here, but I’m guessing Morganroth probably followed a similar pattern. I can’t believe a journalist of with any longevity in the field would be Dudley Do Right for their entire career and then wake up one day and go to this level of fraud on a single story.
When a story emerges from a reporter and it’s found to have fakery in it, particularly in such an egregious fashion as the 9/11 story had, it’s like seeing a cockroach in your apartment: It’s not good for anyone involved and that roach probably has more than a few friends you haven’t found yet.
To what degree folks at Morganroth’s former media outlets decide to dig into this remains to be seen, but given what we’ve seen here, they probably should start digging.
DON’T START: In terms of a lesson for beginning journalists, I guess the easiest one is “don’t try this at home.” I might be cynical here, but I’m guessing almost every reporter at some time or another thought about cutting a corner. As we saw with the Mike Ward situation, it was almost always in regard to those “salt-of-the-earth” people who were just in the story to add color to it.
(I always hated those stories, as I found that people viewed me with suspicion when I approached them and they never had anything amazing to say. Still, I went about my duty to ask them if they were really enjoying their ice cream cones on this wonderful sunny day at the beach.)
If you get lazy or frustrated or annoyed or whatever, it can be so easy to rationalize a bit of fakery:
Nobody’s going to know if the guy who liked corn dogs at the county fair really exists…
I’m sure there’s a fan out there who thinks the team could win it all this year…
Everybody loves a parade…
In looking at these examples, it can seem like an innocuous move that doesn’t hurt anyone. In looking at the Daily Camera story and the others listed here, you can see making this move leads nowhere good.
It’s never just one time. It’s never just the one hot-dog vendor or ride operator. It always gets bigger. Someone almost always finds out. Nothing will ever be the same for your career after it occurs.
The best way to avoid a situation like the one in Boulder is to not put yourself in it in the first place.