Monday, February 21, 2011

Sun Correspondent Finds Sources Worse Than Wikipedia

Today's stoopid story diligently lists "references" to half a dozen websites that a "correspondent" scraped to produce a holiday feature based on sources lower than Wikipedia.

OK, Barbara Bean-Mellinger gets credit for attributing, after a fashion, but the sources she uses would make a tenth-grader blush.

For example, Bean-Mellinger turns to American History Fun Facts, a website run by "Julie," who says right up front, "I’m not a historian." Julie says she's a stay-at-home caregiver for elderly parents and sells homemade jewelry. When not blogging presidential fun facts, she Tweets with the group, Right Wing Women. The bead-stringing nonhistorian frames her site with ads, pleas for donations and shopping links. Not a single fact that Sun-Herald correspondent Barbara Bean-Mellinger uses from this site is attributed to a credible source -- although a bunch of stuff seems to originate with other "fun facts" sites and Wikipedia -- based on the usual clues, including wording.

No, we don't like to use Wikipedia as a major source. But there are worse sites and Bean-Mellinger has located a nice array of them. The result isn't research or journalism; it isn't fact checking; it isn't news or reporting. It's what sixth graders do when they write their first "research paper."

Bean-Mellinger attempts editing, but her idea of it seems limited to lopping off the last half of sentences (in order to create a wow factor?). For example, an ABC News site Bean-Mellinger cites says President Barack Obama's high school nickname on the basketball court was "Barry O'Bomber." Bean Mellinger reports it was "O'bomber." Shortening the name makes it at least half wrong. The ABC news article goes on to quote its real-person source as saying former team members "still see him as Barry."

Bean-Mellinger lops off half of another story when she reports John Quincy Adams "swimming nude in the Potomac every day." Mellinger's Fun Facts source includes a significant qualifier: "in good weather," and goes on to note that several presidents did much the same. Again, Bean-Mellinger edits not for accuracy and clarity, but to slant material in a failed, amateurish attempt to make it more interesting (I'm guessing).

In other editing, Bean-Mellinger sweepingly reports "Not surprisingly, our presidents were avid speakers." The unchecked correspondent seems oblivious to Thomas Jefferson's famous aversion to public speaking. The carefully documented and researched website, (among other respected sources) reports that John Adams during the first Continental Congress said "I never heard him [Jefferson] utter three sentence together." Jefferson himself documented his wish "to go on a strict but silent performance of my duty..." Which he did: Jefferson did not speak the annual messages to Congress but wrote them out and sent them by secretary. The point is that one exception to the correspondent's sweeping generalization relegates Bean-Mellinger's reporting to the silly file.

But, as they say on the shopping networks: "Wait! There's more!"

When Bean-Mellinger reports the "fun fact" that Grover Cleveland "had been the public executioner in Erie County, N.Y.," she misrepresents by omitting context. Erie did not have a position called "public executioner." Death by hanging was an order that a county sheriff was required to oversee if needed. He could either carry out the execution or pay a deputy $10 to do the deed. Sheriff Cleveland did not shift the onerous task to an underling and did pull the trapdoor lever for two hangings, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Allan Nevis. (Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. New York: Dobbs Mead & Co., 1932. Page 61.

Wait. There's more. Bean-Mellinger reports Martin Van Buren was the first president "actually born" in the United States. By once more omitting context, she suggests the first seven presidents were not. Any professional and ethical reporter would feel obligated to work in a phrase or two clarifying that every president has been born on American soil; the first crop of them merely came along before the republic was formalized.

Any writer who manages to dumb-down sites like "" to compile a Presidents Day feature for grownups earns neither her paycheck nor the trust of Sun-Media Group readers.

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