Journalist out after tainted reporting. What’s the PR damage?

The Intercept retracts or corrects unverifiable stories on a racist shooter, Donald Trump and others. Is there a lesson in its mea culpa for other organizations in crises?


You can talk about restaurant chains that spread E. coli or automobile makers that cheat on reporting vehicle emissions.

In the news business, no brand crisis is more damaging than allegations that your product was tainted by a reporter’s fabrications.

The Intercept , a site specializing in investigative reporting, revealed that it had parted ways with staff reporter Juan Thompson after he allegedly engaged in a pattern of deceit that involved unverifiable quotes and creating fake email addresses.

Editor Betsy Reed reported Tuesday that The Intercept was retracting or correcting five stories. One of them was a widely cited report that a black man had stolen the love interest of Dylann Roof, a white racist who then allegedly killed nine African-Americans in a shooting spree in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The story quoted Roof’s cousin, but an editor’s note now states, “After speaking with two members of Dylann Roof’s family, The Intercept can no longer stand by the premise of this story. Both individuals said that they do not know of a cousin named Scott Roof.”

‘Great lengths to deceive his editors’

“In his reporting Thompson also used quotes that we cannot verify from unnamed people whom he claimed to have encountered at public events,” Reed stated. “Thompson went to great lengths to deceive his editors, creating an email account to impersonate a source and lying about his reporting methods.”

Reed apologized for the errors. In what might offer a model for handling certain PR crises, The Intercept undertook the humbling task of contacting news outlets that had cited the flawed stories and alerting them to the problems.

Thompson’s Twitter account reveals an animus toward Republican candidate Donald Trump. Perhaps significantly, editors have now raised questions about falsified sources in Thompson’s story about a Trump rally. An angry-sounding source he quoted as being a Trump supporter told editors she didn’t attend the rally in question, never spoke to the reporter and doesn’t even support the candidate, a new editor’s note reveals.

Several news outlets quoted a letter from Thompson to Reed contending he was undergoing cancer treatment and had made a novice’s errors. The statement also seems to blame racism for his treatment. (Thompson is African-American.)

“Was it sloppy?” Gawker quotes the reporter as writing to Reed. “Yes? [sic] But I’m a cub reporter and expected a sustained and competent editor to guide me, something which I never had at your company and something with which The Intercept continues to struggle as everyone in this business knows.”

Through a spokesman, Reed declined to answer further questions from PR Daily, citing the “sensitive editorial, legal and personnel matter.”

The mea culpa

Shel Holtz, of Holtz Communication + Technology, said The Intercept followed the best possible course of action. RELATED: Keep calm in a crisis with these tips.

“It demonstrates that they stand by journalistic principles and standards,” he says. “It’s sad, though, that news organizations have cut way back on (and even eliminated) fact checkers, which could have surfaced the problem before the stories went to press.”

Jonathan Rick of The Jonathan Rick Group added, “People like you and me—the press and insiders—care more about scandals like this than do regular readers and advertisers. BuzzFeed is thriving despite Benny Johnson’s plagiarism. So is The Washington Post despite Lisa Rein’s and Wired despite Jonah Lerer’s. Plagiarism damages the plagiarist more than his publication. Exhibit A: Serial fabulist Stephen Glass still can’t get a job.”

The Intercept’s mea culpa played well in some parts of Twitterdom.

Interestingly, Thompson himself suggested his current line of defense in a tweet last summer: that black reporters who commit journalistic fraud are treated differently from white ones.

@byWorking

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