Time to start checking IDs: @USAToday Article On Zimmerman Verdict Quotes A “Howie Felterbush” http://t.co/hAzM46Jp3F
— mark seibel (@markseibel) July 14, 2013
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.