Blogger’s note: The underlying story here is a couple of days old and while it appears the subjects of that story have moved passed this, the reporters of whom this post concerns cannot.
We subscribe to the Toledo Blade. Each morning the paper-delivery person flops the daily edition, generally wrapped in an orange plastic bag, at the end of our driveway near the street. While we don’t have a routine of whom in the house retrieves the paper, on the day in question, it was I who did. Normally when I retrieve the paper in the morning before heading off to work, I generally unwrap the paper, gaze at the banner and the above-the-fold headlines. I then place the paper on the table in the kitchen and head off to the office. I generally do not read the vast majority of the paper, aside from the weekly Kroger ad and perhaps a Dave Hackenberg column now and again. I was following this routine on Wednesday when I was immediately captured by the headline, “Woman accuses ex-mayor Bell of improper contact.”
A little background first. Here in Toledo, we are in the process of running our version of The Hunger Games Quarter Quell. Virtually every person who either has been mayor or has run unsuccessfully for mayor in the past twenty-five years is again running for mayor this time around. Mike Bell is among them. It is likely going to be a fun campaign to people-watch. I have no dog in the mayoral fight. At least not yet. Right now, I am more interested in the campaign itself than in who actually wins. I don’t really care about the politics of The Blade. In sum, the politics underlying the actual story that follows isn’t as important to me as the actual reporting of the story that is troubling. The report begins,
A woman has gone to Facebook to accuse former Mayor Mike Bell of inappropriately touching her at a Toledo bar Friday night, allegations Mr. Bell denies.
You are probably thinking, because I know I was, that there must be more to this then a Facebook post and a denial. That sort of thing happens all the time on Facebook. It’s practically the reason the thing was invented. Turns out the report has a little more than nothing else. In fact, there is more denial of the events alleged than confirmation, which is to say some denial and no confirmation.
The report continues by repeating what the accuser wrote in her Facebook post, including some choice bits like,
I’m really upset that I can’t go to the bar without having pervy old men twice my age grab me and touch me and telling grossly inappropriate things. Especially when one of them is running for mayor.
The report states that Bell denied the allegation emphatically. If that isn’t bad enough, the report gets worse.
The posting erupted – on Facebook and by commenters to The Blade’s story about the allegations on toledoblade.com – into Mr. Bell’s history of going to bars and talking to women, as well as the topic of unwanted physical contact and harassment.
This is a news report (which was printed on the front page of the newspaper, above the fold) of an allegation posted on Facebook which was emphatically denied, and then offers as some sort of weird substantiation for the allegations the comments of nameless Facebook users, as if going to bars and talking to woman is evidence of inappropriate behavior. The report offers a named witness who states,
Mike Bell spent most of his time with me and most of my friends – there was no groping. I didn’t see him with any of the other women, I have met him out on many other occasions, professionally and after hours, and he has never been inappropriate.
The way I read this report, with no confirmation or verification of the allegation posted on Facebook, the headline could have just as easily read, “Woman accuses ex-mayor Bell of never being inappropriate.”
Seems to me if it is possible for a story to have polar-opposite headlines, then the reporters need to do a lot more work.
Treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline. Verify information before passing it along. Be honest about your intent when reporting. Avoid actions that might discredit your professional impartiality.
Above all, proceed with caution, especially when news is breaking and accounts vary widely about what is happening. Reach out to other sources for confirmation.
I understand that reporters from the Toledo Blade are not held to the standards of National Public Radio, but I guess it goes without saying that if there are no other sources of confirmation for any story originating in social media, then don’t print it. All of the events of the underlying story happened inside a bar on a busy Friday evening. There were witnesses, some friends of Mike Bell and some otherwise, and all of them seem to say that they witnessed nothing inappropriate. Unless I missed something, there is nothing offered in the report which validates the allegations contained in the Facebook post, but plenty to refute it. Please do not misunderstand the point. This isn’t a comment about inappropriate behavior facing women these days. This is not a political statement. This is only about the reporting and the fact that this story was even published at all.
As readers of this newspaper, we have put up with a lot of shenanigans, but for me this story marks the nadir of journalism integrity at The Toledo Blade.