Public Editor

Readers' thoughts about The Star and KansasCity.com

When sources err — or lie: Can journalists catch all untruths?

07/20/2014 7:00 AM

07/20/2014 6:19 PM

Journalists’ primary objective should always be to tell the truth — obviously. What happens then when a person being interviewed is deceptive? And is it feasible or even possible for editors, photographers and reporters to detect the dishonesty before it makes its way to publication?

For some time now I have been collecting examples of errors and falsehoods that have made their way into The Kansas City Star because of news sources who lied to journalists.

In these cases, I am not going to get into the specifics, as I see no benefit in bringing undue attention or humiliation on the people who provided the untrue information.

Sometimes, it boils down to a little white lie that isn’t terribly important in the grand scheme of things.

An example: A father who fibbed to a Star photographer about the age of his children. He was under the impression that there was an age limit for an attraction the family was wanting to attend, so he told everyone at the scene that the kids qualified.

Minor? Yes. Requiring correction? Also yes.

Longtime readers will remember that years ago, corrections attributed the source of the error to the reporter, editor, news source and so on. I agree with the decision to eliminate these unnecessary details, which can make The Star look defensive. It doesn’t matter how the mistake is made. If something is wrong, it should be corrected.

The Star’s policy on print calendar errors is slightly different than that for news. If the calendar containing the errant item will run again before the event takes place, the next listing is simply updated with the correct information. However, if there isn’t time to re-run the corrected listing, the mistake is noted on Page A2 like a news correction.

The rub in these cases is that virtually all calendar items are self-submitted by the organizers of events, and many of these people aren’t communications professionals accustomed to making sure T’s are crossed. They are the cause of the vast majority of these errors, in my experience. But again, if it’s wrong, it needs to be fixed.

But some inaccuracies present a murky ethical question. Here I am thinking of two different stories from some time ago that included interviews with two people who were indisputably recipients of charity programs.

In both cases I heard from multiple people who were upset to see these people in news coverage, which they understandably interpreted as sympathetic. My callers and emailers had credible and consistent stories that convinced me that the interview subjects were scam artists.

The assistance they were receiving wasn’t directly related to their schemes, and neither person showed up in a Missouri Case.net courts search. But comprehensive criminal background checks are difficult if not impossible for journalists to conduct because of the spiderweb jurisdictions and reporting standards in the justice system.

So yes, I think it’s likely the stories they told The Star were embellished or invented. But I see no way to set the record straight in the context of the stories they appeared in. Readers and journalists alike seem to have been duped.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/KCStarPublic.

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