Sunday, July 14, 2013

USAT | When the man on the street's an imposter



That tweet is by Mark Seibel, chief of correspondents in McClatchy's Washington bureau. It's easy to imagine why he -- and thousands of other editors -- are worried about copycats after San Francisco TV station KTVU got punk'd with fake names of the men piloting the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed a week ago.

And Seibel isn't the only one on Twitter to flag USA Today and the suspiciously named protester "Howie Felterbush" outside the Zimmerman trial in Sanford, Fla., yesterday.

But peeling back the layers of stories, it looks like Felterbush actually originated in a Florida Today story that was republished by USAT, which then fed a version to other Gannett media sites.

Tracing the story's path
Deadspin, the widely read sports blog, appears to be the first site to question whether Felterbush was real. Shortly after midnight ET, it linked to a story on Atlanta's WXIA site that says:

Howie Felterbush stood on the outskirts of the demonstration crowd, watching.

"Justice was rendered," he said. "That's why we have trials instead of (verdicts based on) public opinion."

Felterbush was in Orlando earlier in the day and came to the courthouse to offer an opposing view. "That wasn't to be had," he said. "There was 95% Trayvon supporters."

The Melbourne resident believes the jury made the right decision, but he didn't say it very loudly. The 49-year old declined to be interviewed on video, saying he was uncomfortable because of the "state of things."

WXIA's story, in turn, credited USAT. However, if the Felterbush version ever appeared on USAT, it isn't there any more. The version there now doesn't include the paragraphs Deadspin highlighted -- suggesting someone, somewhere, realized what was going on.

As I post this, those paragraphs still appear in WXIA's version -- to the bemusement of the station's readers. One of them, Michael Larmon, wrote in a comment hours ago: "Howie Felterbush? Really?"

Florida Today is in Melbourne. It's worth noting that the crowd reaction story now on Florida Today's site doesn't include the Felterbush graphs.

How it happens
Every reporter who's been sent to do a breaking news man-on-the-street reaction story knows the drill: Grab as many quotes as possible in the shortest period of time. "What's your name?" Then you scribble down "Howie Felterbush." Time-pressed line editors and copy editors (if they even exist) scan your story for obvious errors, and up it goes on the Web.

Given the pressure to report and publish in real time, who would ever follow Seibel's suggestion: asking for photo IDs to prove a man in the crowd is who he says he is? Not many. And seeking confirmation elsewhere doesn't guarantee you won't be fooled. After all, San Francisco's KTVU confirmed the name "Ho Lee Fuk" and others with the National Transportation Safety Board.

The lesson today will hold for the immediate future as more copycats try to exploit holes in how we do journalism: If someone supplies an odd name, check it out -- or edit it out.

31 comments:

  1. 'Course whoever old Howie really was might just not want his real name used in conjunction with such a volatile circumstances. And considering how low many people place journalists on the scale of honesty...well, enough said.

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  2. Replies
    1. Yes, 11:22; hard-to-believe names like The Indianapolis Star publisher's do exist, and so it's possible that Felterbush is a real name.

      But the subsequent editing of this story suggests editors had doubts.

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    2. Anyone ever question NASCAR driver Dick Trickle or onetime Gannett Senior VP Dick Clapp?

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    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  3. In an e-mail, a reader tells me: "A search on whitepages.com finds a Howie Felterbusch, 25, in Dunnellon, Fla., and a Howie C. Filterbush in Nashville. It also finds a Peter Felterbush/Phelterbush in Pennsylvania. Think that people use made-up names not just with journalists?"

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  4. In other examples of worrisome sourcing, Deadspin's better-known sister site Gawker reports "Canadian actor Cory Monteith, best known for his role as Finn Hudson on Fox's Glee, was found dead this morning in his hotel room in Vancouver of an apparent drug overdose."

    Gawker links to a USA Today story in the Life section, which reports: "Word began to spread on Twitter at roughly 1 a.m. ET that the Glee star had passed away due to an apparent drug overdose."

    But whose word?

    When I checked Twitter, however, I couldn't find any authoritative source for that cause of death -- or any cause of death. Indeed, USAT's story goes on to report that an autopsy is scheduled for Monday, and then quotes Vancouver Acting Police Chief Doug LePard saying: "The coroner will be determining the next steps with respect to establishing cause of death, but all indications are that there was no foul play."

    Under the sourcing guidelines established after the Jack Kelley scandal, relying on Twitter in this way wouldn't be allowed. This leaves me wondering, again, whether the new top brass at USAT has read the Kelley Report.

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    1. Your sourcing practices would fail under the same questioning, Jim.

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  5. Recently a reporter in Louisiana cited Twitter extensively when writing about the shooting death of Lil Snupe, an up-and-coming rapper. Those "quotes" made it online in early stories, although followups included traditional sourcing.

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  6. Those sourcing guidelines are gone with the wind -- the wind blowing from Callaway and Kramer, that is. If they could get away with using Twitter comments as a source on every story and not pay for actual work slaves aka reporters to leave their desk and quote actual people (with real names), they probably would. They constantly use tweets from star accounts to do reaction stories -- and who knows if the actual celebs actually do their own tweeting. As for Jack Kelley, I doubt they even know who that is.

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  7. Google cache of the article:
    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:H7kHwd8JIwsJ:www.11alive.com/news/article/298843/8/The-system-has-failed-Crowds-react-to-Zimmerman-verdict+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a

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  8. Clarion-ledger once quoted Haywood Jablome

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  9. 5000 journalists, plenty of inexperienced, young People to make huge errors.we already are embarrassing as a product.

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  10. Has anyone ever seen Howie Felterbush and Jack Kelley in the same room. Hmmmmmm....very interesting.

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  11. This is why you people need urban street smarts: Howie Fleterbush? Really? You're that naive? Every teenage boy in NYC knows that one. What else are you going to fall for, Mike Hunt? While there are "suggestive names which really exists (A town I covered had a planning board chairman with the name Dick Goodenough and a university president named Dick Hyman. I verified them and asked "wouldn't you rather I call you Richard on first reference?". They went with the D word. But these were people I dealt with on a regular basis as opposed to a "real person" on the street you'll probably never see again.

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  12. "Mike Hunt, Mike Hunt.....is Mike Hunt here?"

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  13. for something with as little news value as a man-on-the-street quote, why does it matter whether the name is real?

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  14. The reporter and editor responsible should be reprimanded.inexcusable.

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  15. 5:05 pm: Jack Kelley surfaces!

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  16. I heard USAT is working on an in-depth, investigative piece on the same level as "Ghost Factories" and they have brought-in Alota Fagina and Ivana Humpalot to co-write. It will be edited by Seymour Ofyercrack.

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  17. @ 5:05- Seriously? It's called creditability. If readers can't believe the "man on the street" column, then they can't believe anything else in the paper or on the website. You must be in management.

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    1. i say the man in the street has no place in such a story. the choice of which whom the reporter decides to quote is so random (aside from mainstreaming) that the opinions add nothing to the story. the reporter should talk with people who have standing with the story, not random folks. if the story is about a protest or some organized response, then talk with those people. otherwise why waste space and time? that is what i meant but did not make clear in my haste.

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  18. Howie Felterbush's best friend is a guy named Jack Meeoff. Really.

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  19. Deadspin today dances close to saying the man is real and has a pix of the person claiming to be him.

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    1. Felterbush lives!

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  20. But then again, neither Autotrack nor Accurint have any record of such a person in Fla.

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  21. Ask a Cincinnati Enquirer old-timer about the Alma Monkeydick correction.

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  22. Don't forget about former Minnesota Twins pitching coach Dick Such (pronounced Suck)

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  23. Phil McCrevice likes this thread.

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  24. These may all sound like Bart Simpson pranking Moe at the tavern: I.P. Freely; Oliver Closeoff; Hugh Jass, etc. People do have unfortunate names. There's a sports writer in the Milwaukee area whose name is Michael Hunt. And yes, he does go by Michael, for obvious reasons.

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