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‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out’

First, this post has nothing to do with my mom (whom I love and who definitely loves me). But I thought it’d be a good time to post on the topic of fact-checking since it is Mother’s Day and all.

So, raise your hand if you were told this phrase in j-school: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The basic gist, in case you missed that lesson, is no matter how much you trust someone, don’t just take their word for it. Verify the information.

About a week and a half ago, this ingrained fact-checking mantra stumbled on something that seemed incomprehensible to me. That’s where my story begins:

A local school district called a press conference in the days leading up to a tax referendum vote. The point of the event was to tout several recent awards/recognitions for their students and schools. I was already aware of most of the items announced. The only thing that seemed newsworthy to me was their pronouncement that BusinessWeek had named them, for a second year, the top academic school in the state. I sent my editor a note from the press conference telling him that was the upshot of the event. I was going to post it on Twitter as well, but I decided since it wasn’t breaking news I would wait to get back to the office to find the link online to share. So I talked to a few students, board members, superintendent, etc. and then went back to the office expecting to spit out a quick story.

But when I went to the BusinessWeek site, there was nothing promoted about the “recent announcement.” That seemed strange. I tried searching the site for the award and could only pull up the 2009 rankings. I tried Googling it — with all my Google-fu skills — and tried looking for it on the Great Schools site, because Great Schools had partnered with BW in 2009. Nada.

I tried to call the editors at the magazine. It was already 4:30 p.m., so I wasn’t sure I’d reach anyone. After being forwarded through several people, I ended up leaving a voicemail for an education reporter there. She called me back about an hour later and said she hadn’t heard anything about the project being repeated this year. However, she wasn’t involved the prior year, so she suggested I contact the projects editor. I left him a voicemail and e-mail.

Meanwhile, I e-mailed the superintendent to ask if he had any documentation. I also e-mailed the Education Writers Association listserv to see if anyone else had heard about the announcement. I assumed other reporters would be working on similar stories about their own local schools. But no one else on the very active list replied, which is unusual. The superintendent replied with a link to the 2009 rankings, which while not specifically dated on that story page, were linked to a story from 2009. The format of the URL also indicated to me the page was posted in January 2009. I pointed that out to him and asked how he heard about the award this year. We talked on the phone and he said he was going back to his office to try and find the e-mail he received a few weeks ago, which he would forward to me — and to the night editor because I had to leave soon.

It occurred to me maybe this was a print exclusive story or a package with a delayed online posting. I didn’t have access to a print copy of BusinessWeek at the office. And I didn’t have time to go to the library a few blocks away, but I did call their reference desk where a not-as-helpful-as-he-could-be clerk told me it wasn’t in this issue.

At this point, I needed to file something, but I couldn’t confirm the entire point of the story. I had been working since about 9 a.m. that morning, and I was scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. that night at my part-time job. I wrote a story with all the information I had at that point, contact info for people I’d been reaching out to and told the night editor I’d forward the note from the superintendent when I got it on my phone. But when the note came in, it was really vague and not at all clear. My editors made the right decision to hold the story a day, even if it meant TV ran with the story and our news would be a little older than the press conference.

Long story short, it turns out this award wasn’t re-issued. The pages haven’t been updated. But between the still unexplainable e-mail the district officials received and the lack of a date stamped on the page, confusion had arisen that made them assume this was a new recognition. I found this out definitively the next day when I was able to reach the magazine projects editor. The story that ran in our paper ended up being the superintendent’s mea culpa for claiming a recognition that didn’t happen. As I pointed out, the district is still the top-ranked school in Indiana, but it hasn’t been recognized a second time.

So, here’s the lesson:

If they had just mentioned it to me and hadn’t called a press conference attended by several dozen community members, I probably would have just let it go and pointed out the mistake. It might have been mentioned on my beat blog, but just as likely not. I went into the story looking to validate not disprove the information. It hadn’t occurred to me until I was on the phone with the magazine reporter that the information could possibly be wrong. I just assumed I couldn’t find it. Instead, both I and the district got a lesson in the importance of fact checking and were able to set the record straight about what I believe was an honest mistake. (The TV station seemed to completely ignore this information, but then, their as-yet-uncorrected story was wrong to begin with because they said it was “Business Weekly” offering the honor.)

The other lesson in this is probably lost on BusinessWeek and other news entities, but I want to point it out anyway. Although there’s value in “evergreen” features, there’s also a real chance of danger in keeping something up too long and especially in not time/date-stamping it. Not everyone is as Web savvy as I am, and following the trail on this story it was very easy to see how someone would have misinterpreted the pages and information. It could get recrawled by Google and come across as fresh news, as has happened before. Or at the least, it could lead to confusion or blunders, such as the one I wrote about.

2 Responses to “‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out’”

  1. Kaci Says:

    There’s a possibility I may be a bit biased toward print journalism, but…

    Leave it to TV news to screw up a story.

  2. Mridu Khullar Says:

    That’s a very interesting story. Kudos to your editors as well, who trusted you and allowed you the freedom to explore the details of the issue when it wasn’t working out.