A friend of mine posted this moment from a Texas Legislative session where a bill targeting doctors who provided help to transgender youth was up for debate. As heartfelt as this woman’s pitch is to get this thing stopped, it pales in comparison to what happens next:
The fact it took this guy three tries to figure out what was happening is the reason for this throwback post. Between pranksters and terrible headline issues, we never know when our work will become a cautionary tale for future generations.
To help you avoid asking for Connie, Anita or Holden to step forward, here’s a throwback post to help you out:
3 ways to avoid letting Tucker Boner, Dick Hertz and Heywood Jablome turn your story into a prank
The world of news features is fraught with danger when you couple unsuspecting reporters with people who enjoy trolling them. A journalism colleague and friend alerted me to this potentially suspect source in a New York Times story about Zillow Surfing:
As my friend noted, “I couldn’t help but think the reporter got duped,” before referencing this classic “source” in a New York Post story:
The Post story is coming up on two decades old, but the folks there are apparently not giving up the ship when it comes to Heywood’s bona fides (sorry… couldn’t resist) as this story is STILL AVAILABLE.
Is it possible that these guys were both real people with just unfortunate names? Sure. I mean, one of the best pitching coaches in baseball history (at least in my mind) had probably the world’s worst name if he wanted people to take him seriously: Dick Pole.
Of all the greatest “add another layer” moments was the year in which Pole played for the Portland Beavers. Although you should know by now I’m not creative enough to make this stuff up, here’s proof:
We could spend hours going through a list of names people have used to punk reporters. The Seymour Buttz and Mike Rotch’s of the world are well known, thanks in large part to “The Simpsons” and Bart’s penchant for pranking the local bar.
There are plenty of cases where “regular” people have names that go beyond common spellings or those we have seen hundreds of times before. We once had a music guy who kept calling us to promote the promising bands he represented. His first name was Spackle. I have no idea how or why…
Even more, there are cases where people share famous names with people who have entered the public spotlight in an unfortunate fashion. (In my time at the State Journal, I worked with a “Susan Smith” right around the time another “Susan Smith” was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Our “Susan” actually wrote a column about these unfortunate pairings…) And, of course, it’s probably no great shakes for these regular folks, either, who have to deal with this on a daily basis:
However, as a journalist, you can’t cut people out of your stories or avoid them just because “that name sounds weird.” With that in mind, here are a few tips for keeping yourself out of trouble in these situations:
Trust but verify: In most cases, you’re getting people to tell you their names and spell them, so you’re in pretty good shape for making sure you got the name itself right.
If the name seems like it might be a “trolling moment,” you can’t automatically assume this person is messing with you. (“So that’s Dick P-O-L-E… wait a minute!”) It would be in poor form to demand ID from that person, but you can get around that concern in a few other ways.
Make use of the other publicly available databases, such as those for court records. Maybe “Yankton Weiner” was sued, filed suit, got a speeding ticket or got a divorce from the former Mrs. Weiner, which would help you figure this out.
Do a search through multiple other websites connected with the topic at hand to see if that person was cited as a source. A quick run through your own news site and a few others in the area would be helpful as well. If you keep coming up empty, telephone directory searches are also helpful.
Also, the internet has a burgeoning public records industry where various companies swear they can find out anything about anybody. If you search for a name, chances are, you’ll get at least something in the free version of the company’s site. Worst case, pay the $20 or whatever if you’re desperate to use the source but afraid of looking like an idiot.
Box the source in: One of the easiest ways to prevent a source from snowing you is to pin that source down with specific questions about themselves. A person might quickly give you “I. P. Frehleigh” as a name, but would likely be less adept telling you what the I and P stand for. The more questions you ask, the more hemmed in that source will be.
If the source works in some professional field, ask for a business card with the idea that you might want to reach out to them later. If they balk, that’s a pretty good indication that something might not be above board. If they offer a phone number instead, use that number to reach out to them from another phone and see how they answer. Or use a reverse-directory app to get their name from that number.
Throw some basic chatter at the person to get some other information such as, “So how long have you lived around here?” or “Where did you say your office was?” If the answers are quick and easy, the person is likely on the level. If they feel forced, be wary. Either way, write the answers down so you can check them against other information. Also, don’t be afraid to go back and ask a basic question a second time to see if they have it the same way twice: “I’m sorry, but HOW did you spell ‘Frehleigh’ again?”
Ask that source to give you some contact information for their colleagues or other folks who might be just as helpful. This will help limit the number of lies that you can hear. At the end of the day, paranoia will be your best friend, so ask as many questions about the person as you need to
Cut it: There’s no rule that says you have to use a source just because you got the source to talk. Granted, some sources are crucial to a story, but if you review what Mr. Jablome and what Mr. Boner told the reporters here, you can see nothing vital or unique. This is a case of a reporter just deciding, “Well, I got the source, so I’m using him,” a concept in journalism known as notebook emptying.
At the end of the day, I’d rather be one source short than to add to the legend of “Elle Phunt,” “Dee Z. Knutz” or “Barry McCockiner.”