Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Nothing to Report Except Plagiarism and a Misrepresented Source

The banner headline screams "Gang activity." The reporter inquires at local cop shops. The findings are prominently displayed in the last leg or two of type, deep in the page 4 jump.

"In Charlotte County, gang activity is not much of an issue," the spokesman says. OK, we'll go with that. This is good.

Over in DeSoto County, sheriff's deputies had a couple of training days and a database beeps when it finds a gang member's name. Good, good; no problem.

In North Port, more training. "They relay the information to fellow officers," the reporter manages to pry out of her source. Good; everyone is on the job.

Another officer says he keeps a list of names and addresses. North Port police report gang activity at a school "about five years ago," and they hopped right on it, The Sun's investigation-by-editor uncovers. We're glad for that.

So what's the news? Well, tucked at the end of the story's fourth graf -- pretty near the top of the story -- News Editor Elaine Allen-Emrich says Florida State Attorney General Bill McCollum announces southwest Florida houses "more than 50 gangs with more than 2,000 members."

Now we've got news! Well,not really. The news-editor-turned-investigative-reporter has dusted off a press release that's more than a year old. McCollum posted his shocker on a Web site in November 2008, back when the state was establishing a gang-reduction task force.

Despite shopworn information, no task force updates are forthcoming from Ms. Investigative-Editor-Turned-Reporter even though her headline bugles "Gang activity seeps into area."

If the story is there's no gang problem because everyone's on top of things, that headline can mean only one thing: The kids on the copy desk continue to make stuff up even though we've mentioned several times that this is a no-no.

Now, there may be a gang or two in Sarasota, but Officer Kim Swatts sidesteps the issue. Instead, she explains there are two types of gangs (Hmmm; didn't we read this on the Internet?), some traditional and some not (could swear we read this in one of those parents-be-warned brochures). But Swatt continues on and Investigative Reporter Tells It Like It Is: Some gangs are "like family;" some don't get along and others do. They tend to commit crimes against each other. (Sorry, Swatts, this is not news -- but not your fault. News is the reporter's job.)

Swatts goes on to list gang-related crime on her Sarasota beat: robberies, drive-bys, fights, gun and drug trafficking, homicide. "You name it, they do it," is her summary. (OK, I will: stock fraud, bank embezzlement, insider trading, orphan kidnapping. I can name lots of stuff so I guess that's included too, right? Now, if you've got some data? Can we get a report on whether the numbers of gang homicides are up or down from last year? Any data on whether gangs are seeping more but enjoying it less, maybe? )

So where's the data on these crimes? The reporter never asks. Is gang crime increasing or decreasing -- either of which would be a dandy reason for the morning paper's 65-incher. Maybe something has changed in the 15 months since Smiling Bill launched that gang-reduction program. Or, if nothing's changed, where'd all the funding go? For heaven's sake, tell us some real, genuine, actual news, Elaine!

Yes, yes: our headine promises a scoop on Allen-Emrich's plagiarism, but first things first. We mean that lede: "Selling drugs equals money. Money equals power and power is everything to gang members."

Very catchy. But not news because there's nary a word in the article (that's longer than I am tall) about who is formulating the kick-off equation. Readers are promised gangs, money and power -- and seeping, if one believes the headline. News Editor Allen-Emrich preps readers for news and abandons them (to their own private musings: "I spend 75 cents for this? Talk about a shakedown by the Dunn-Rankin gang!).

Time for one more failure to deliver? Instead of delivering news, she writes one more feature tease: "Surely there's no "Bloods" living in the area. Wrong answer." Again, no report ever materializes that Bloods live and walk among us.

OK, so we have pretty much the usual troika: A headline to sell papers out of the box but which has nothing to do with the story. It's made up. And, a story that uses ink and paper but generates no light. And finally, a "news editor" trying to get to the bottom of what could be a genuine story, but seems unable to marshal the basic skills of journalism: interviewing, researching, reporting and honest writing. By which, we mean:

The plagiarism. And, for extra measure, a dose of a mischaracterizing a source and misrepresenting its information:

Elaine Allen-Emrich writes at the top of page 4: Today’s definition of a youth gang is an anti-social, loosely organized group of three or more individuals between ages 11 and 24. They frequent a specific territory, have identifying colors, names, similar speech patterns, identifying marks or tattoos, hairstyles, wear the same clothing, use mannerisms or hand signs and engage in activity for money, respect, or to enhance their reputation.

The Web site Fit American MD writes: Today, gangs are described as “an anti-social, loosely organized group of two or more individuals, usually between the ages of eleven and twenty-four, who frequent a specific territory, adopt similar clothes, mannerisms and speech, and engage in delinquent or criminal activity for money, respect or reputation.”

The Web site uses quotation marks as if it has a source for the information, but does not provide it. A keyword search finds no other Web page using that wording in that order -- except Elaine Allen-Emirch and Fit America -- which is pretty much defunct except for this stray page.

The plagiarism is bad, but the news editor's misuse of a source and data is just plain sad.

Allen-Emrich reports a group called Fight Crime Invest in Kids is a nonprofit made up of "more than 5,000 police chiefs." No it isn't.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids describes its membership as “made up of more than 5,000 police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, other law enforcement leaders and violence survivors.” That’s a very different membership base than the news editor reports.

Emrich needs to mention the organization because she reports it's the source for the factoid that "preventing just one teen from adopting a life of crime could save the country between $1.7 million and $2.3 million."

Emrich can't say whether the millions would be saved in a day, week, month, year or over the lifetime of the saved child because the lobbying group she relied on for the info doesn't say either. In fact what the lobbying group does say is that its information is part of a research study, Meth Abuse Threatens More Crime in Rural Oregon.

Allen-Emrich couldn't find relevant numbers or data about gangs in our little town, so she inserts data from a white paper about meth in rural Oregon. No wonder we call this "sad." Yes, Something is seeping here, and it's not gangs.


  1. The Gondolier re-ran the story today and took every one of your criticisms to heart in a substantial rewrite. You should send them a bill for copy editing!

  2. @I-75 -- when they did that, they also got rid of the plagiarism, yes, AND whatever little balance the original had. The "Editor" took out the parts that said basically "no problems here" -- in an attempt to juice up this tired, weak story that washed up on the editor's desk.

  3. I can guess how this went down: Some editor was sitting around scratching his butt and thought, "Gee, I wonder if there are any gangs around here?" The story was assigned and slated for page 1 as a Big Deal. No matter what the actual story said or whether there WAS a story. That's how the Sun does all of its big package crap.