...snapped a reporter for a competing station the morning the L.A. County District Attorneys Office dropped the murder charge against Lois Goodman -- the tennis ref from Woodland Hills arrested after her husband's death.
The reporter was sitting in the row behind me in court and was commiserating with another reporter -- and speaking loud enough to make sure I'd heard their disapproval.
About an hour earlier I'd broadcast a story that said the DA had decided it couldn't proceed with the case and would ask the court to dismiss the charge.
When the reporters cackled -- court had not begun -- and no other reporters had the information I'd obtained from several confidential news sources.
In fact, the LAPD -- even though it knew the case had fallen apart -- was still telling reporters there was 'no way' the charge would be dropped. Trying to save face 'till the end I suppose.
I bring this up in light of the embarrassing media performance in Boston this week -- with all sorts of "sourced" reports about bombing suspects and arrests that were ultimately denied by those in the know.
Now that journalistic standards seem to evaporate whenever there's intense interest on a major story (maybe I'm being too nice) -- here's my quick guide to judging the veracity of scoop reporting:
(1) Consider the source: not the news source, rather, the media source. Do you really think a big national network or foreign outlet has ready-placed "sources" in a given city -- just standing by, ready to risk their career and livelihood when a story breaks by leaking key investigative information? Didn't think so. I'd be especially suspect of exclusive stories on national wires, TV, and in international publications. I'd be far less suspect of a scoop delivered by a local reporter who covers cops and feds daily. Notice their reporting on Boston so far.
(2) Consider the other source -- the origin of the media's information. "Officials familiar with an investigation" usually means an elected or appointed political person who's played telephone first, second, or third-hand with a law enforcement manager. By telephone I mean the kids game. This is the most likely place details and context are missed or lost. Context can be everything. Without it, and without understanding how the pieces fit together, it's easy to mischaracterize a legitimate development in a case (Boston 'arrests' anyone?).
(3) Consider the confirmation. At minimum any scoop story should carry references to how it was confirmed -- or even denied. I don't do one source reporting -- and I've been beat on a number of major stories because of it. Any decent news report explains how the story was verified. Denials can be telling as well. PR people for law enforcement have become experts in crafting non-denial denials: words that sound like they're saying no but don't actually say 'no you're wrong.' A story without either a confirmation or a metered denial is most suspect.
(4) Consider the identification of the source. Decent journalists always try to inform their reader/listener/viewer of as much accurate information as possible -- including as much about their confidential informants as can be reported without directly or indirectly identifying the person. Sources "familiar with" are never as good as "investigators working the case." Getting as close to a primary source of information is critical. Again, I've waited on all kinds of stories because I felt I needed better sourcing -- even when the information I'd been sitting on turned out to be accurate.
(5) Actions that back up the sourced information. This is the big one for me. Show me something that's happened that confirms the nature of the sourced report. For example, "law enforcement sources say a home has been searched...," combined with a search warrant face sheet with the lead investigator's name -- or eyewitness observations of the search from neighbors. Court filings, booking records, etc. Some verifiable foothold that 'stands up' the sourced info. My skepticism grows without actions.
(6) Pay to play. The UK papers and some US papers, TV, and internet outlets pay people for stories and photos. I'm not sure where I stand on this because often the reporting is accurate, but I also know public employees sometimes cash in and that seems wholly unethical. This also goes to #2 -- in that the person may have a legit piece of the case but is so far removed from the overall investigation it's misleading to report on its own. Doesn't seem to stop them.