Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tampa Bay Times official response to Blackstone story fiasco: "a serious mistake"

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2012 at 1:06 PM

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The Tampa Bay Times screw-up last week regarding reporter Drew Harwell's story on Blackstone purchasing $1 billion worth of properties in the Tampa Bay area was one of the biggest bloopers the local daily has produced in a long time.

But the first official explanation coming from Times senior editors on Wednesday doesn't really provide much clarity about how such a major mistake was made.

To recap: On Friday the Times reported that Blackstone, the New York-based financial services company specializing in private equity and real estate, was going to spend $1 billion in the region's still struggling housing market, buying hundreds of homes a month.

The story was so prominent that a good friend of this reporter, aware of its significance and feeling it worthy of a follow-up, cut the story out and began reading it to me on Saturday morning. But at that same time, I was reading the Times metro page, where Times business editor Graham Brink was reporting that, in fact, Harwell's story wasn't accurate.

The most stunning part of his article was this disclaimer:

The Times did not confirm the details with anyone at Blackstone's headquarters in New York City.

As I turned on my computer, I noted that blogger Peter Schorsch had written about the miscue, and ABC 28 anchorman Brendan McLaughlin had sent out a tweet and a note on his Facebook page about the error.

But what I didn't understand was this: As of early Saturday afternoon, the story remained the most popular on the Times website, and yet there was no mention at all that it was inaccurate.

Wednesday morning the Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride wrote the first story to include quotes from Times editors explaining What Went Wrong.

Tampa Bay Times
Editor Neil Brown responded to McBride thusly:

"Several editors in the process scrubbed the story well and asked lots of questions. But the authority by which the local rep spoke created a blind spot. An unacceptable blind spot. We failed to contact the company directly and that was a serious mistake and not up to our standards.”

Managing Editor Mike Wilson told McBride:

"Ultimately we were left with something that we didn’t know to be untrue. But we were in the uncomfortable situation of having reported something we hadn’t confirmed with the primary source. If we are going to correct something we published I want to be sure the correction is right.”

The response by Neil Brown is frankly a bit troubling. "Several editors" reviewed the story, and not one reacted to the fact that an official with Blackstone wasn't contacted?

The mistake was one noted throughout the Tampa media world over the weekend. CL spoke briefly (and off-the-record) with one well respected veteran reporter with the Tampa Tribune who said he hoped the incident would reduce the level of "hubris" that operates at 490 First Avenue South.

McBride, who covers media ethics for Poynter, lists three things the paper did right and three things the paper did wrong in dealing with the mistake.

Among the kudos she gives the paper is A) Writing a completely new story in the paper admitting the mistake, B) putting that new story at the end of the original story online, and C) admitting that nobody from the paper ever initially contacted Blackstone for the story.

Among her criticisms is the one that has to be considered the most egregious: that when folks in the Twitterverse and elsewhere were noting the mistake on Saturday, the Times website refused to acknowledge the error, leaving the original story in its original form, with no indication that there was anything wrong with that.

I know it's the weekend and there aren't as many people on call, but this was an emergency, no? The site is 24/7 as anyone knows who clicks on it during the nights or weekends. How that story couldn't have an editor's note at the top or bottom but was left in its original state is really questionable. Look, every reporter (unfortunately) makes mistakes. They happen. You hope it doesn't happen to you. But when it does, you've got to clean it up online as soon as possible.

McBride also notes that the original incorrect story on the Times website still has the original headline as of Tuesday afternoon. As of Wednesday at noon that's still the case.

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