Sunday, July 10, 2011

Questionable Quotes Mar Local Feature

Barbara Pierce, Sun-Herald "correspondent," interviews a local practitioner about divorce's effect on children, and her reporting is a major feature in this morning's "fitness" tab.

Pierce quotes a local source and follows up with a second expert:

"Divorce is a prominent source of emotional anguish and suffering for children," said Judith Wallerstein, PhD, University of Berkeley, who did a 25-year study of children and divorce. "Divorce will involve sorrow and loss for your child."

"There are some legitimate reasons to get divorced," Taylor added.

The quote sandwich and attribution "Taylor added" strongly suggest both the local expert and the out-of-town expert are in the room with correspondent Pierce also present, reporting what the experts say to each other and helpfully explaining that Taylor "added" to Wallerstein's remark.

But why, a reader or editor might reasonably wonder: With such a well-known and high-powered expert in the room as Wallerstein, one who has oodles of primary data at her fingertips, why would the reporter use Wallerstein's expertise just once in 25 inches, opting instead to feature the observations of the less-expert local counselor, who -- oddly -- is given the role of adding to the national expert's observations?

If the story's bizarre imbalance isn't enough to give pause, surely an editor would detect one or two of at least four additional red flags signaling a reporter run amok:

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 1: Correspondent Pierce omits any identification of the context in which she heard the out-of-town expert, Wallerstein, tell the reporter her thoughts ("... said in an e-mail," " ... said in a telephone interview from her New York offices," "... said during her keynote address to the National Social Worker's convention held last December in Las Vegas ... "). The omission is dishonest. The reporter doesn't truthfully explain how or when she came to know that Wallerstein said what her story claims she said.

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 2: With Correspondent Pierce making it appear as if she had interviewed Wallerstein when it seems likely that she may not have, a reasonably alert editor would make a move to query the reporter for the quote's actual source. If it had turned out that the reporter lifted the words from Wallerstein's numerous entries at Huffington Post or from another newspaper article or from a professional journal, then that source must be named -- at least according to the ethical standards at most modern newspapers. If the real source of the quote is not named, then the reporter is plagiarizing from a publication she has not credited.

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 3: Maybe the quote does not come from a particular source. Maybe Correspondent Pierce (herself a social worker, according to her article's footnote) is paraphrasing the gist of what she thinks Wallerstein has said in a book or article. If this is the case, then the reporter has fabricated the quotation -- actually, fabricated two quotations.

Red Run-Amok Flag No. 4: There's no such institution as "University of Berkeley." Wallerstein is famously a Senior Lecturer Emerita at the University of California's Berkeley School of Social Welfare.

The editor and reporter can probably reach her through UC Berkeley to confirm facts, correct errors, and apologize for putting words in her mouth.

In other news from the fitness desk ...

Story: Avoid "wacky ingredients" and make "favorite snacks from scratch."

Editor's file art choice: A jar of red licorice twists. What's in a licorice twist? Let's read a Twizzlers' label: Corn syrup, wheat flour, sugar, cornstarch, licorice extract, palm oil, natural and artificial flavors, glycerin potassium sorbate, artificial color (Blue 1 and Red 40), caramel color, soy lecithin.

How might readers make a healthy Twizzler from scratch? That's not in the story.

The unintentional irony of a headline elsewhere in the same edition pretty much sums it up.

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