Accountability

A potentially big story was broken today by another blog.  Unfortunately, we have no way to evaluate it.

I’m not going to repeat the rumor here, not because I personally don’t believe the story (though I don’t), but rather because the author, Brad Wells, hasn’t followed basic journalistic principles.

For me, this story begins last December.  After the Bill Polian radio show briefly disappeared from the airwaves one night, Brad Wells wrote an article hypothesizing that Polian, upset with callers’ questions, had stormed out of the station.  Wells did not have any information to that effect.  He did not verify the story, but instead weakly hid behind words like ‘seems’ and ‘seemingly’.  The story spread quickly thanks to the excellent network provided by Yahoo which works with Stampede Blue’s parent company, SB Nation.  The story even made USA Today.  It was a major coup for Stampede Blue.

Unfortunately, there was not a word of truth to the story.

Wells failed to do any kind of fact checking, and later hid behind his vague equivocations in the story essentially blaming the media for taking him seriously. It was a gutless act and the absolute low point in the nascent history of Colts blogging.  It made us all look sloppy and amateurish by association.

Earlier this week, another SB Nation blog, Hammer and Rails, published a potentially libelous story about a drug scandal in the Purdue athletic department.  The story was backed by nothing more than a completely anonymous email, the author of which was unknown even to the blogger in question.  The story was quickly retracted and an apology was issued.

Today, Wells issues a story backed again by an unnamed source who emailed him information about the team.  His story is unclear as to what kind of source he has.  If Wells has a legitimate team contact whom he personally knows and can verify as the sender, then he has done legitimate journalistic work, and his story should be taken seriously.  However, if his source is nothing more than an empty email address, then his story does not qualify as news even by the lowest burdens of proof.

I have tried several ways to contact Wells, asking him to clarify the nature of his source, but to date he has not responded.

The end result is that given his own history of irresponsible work, and his network’s demonstrated lack of editorial control, there is simply no possible way to evaluate his claims.  I can’t even reject them; I’m forced to not consider them at all.  Without assurances from Wells that his source is legitimate, I won’t treat it as news or examine the merits of his argument.

All of this raises the complicated problems of the blurred lines between journalism and blogging.  At various times, Wells has recently claimed both that he’s not a journalist, but that the new SB Nation Indiana portal hopes to gain credentials from Indiana teams as a legitimate news organization.  Everyone in Colts blogging faces similar conflicts of identity.  John Oehser runs an independent blog and writes for Colts.com.  Phil Wilson works as a beat reporter for the Star, but also has a popular blog in which he expresses his editorial opinion.  I consider myself a writer, not a journalist, but I’ve had to make choices about stories and sources before.  The lines are blurry here, and it can cause complications.

Each and every writer is forced to balance the demands of his audience with the pressures of his own wallet and conscience.  These days, no one has the luxury of impartially reporting events.  Readers clamor for meaning, analysis and interpretation.  Those cries necessarily force the writer into subjective realms that were once off limits to ‘good’ reporters. Simultaneously, the ‘facts’ are more widely distributed than ever, thus bringing more informed voices to the chorus.  More people can express an informed opinion, because thanks to websites like Colts.com, Twitter and Facebook, fans can watch press conferences, locker room interviews, and have access to players in unfiltered ways once off limits to all but the press.

The result is that more of us can express an informed opinion about the team but without the inherent checks and balances of having to face up and enter the locker room or coach’s office.  The only restraint we have is the notion that the public is watching and paying attention, holding us accountable for what we write by visiting or not visiting our sites.  We lack any uniform code of standards and practices other than whatever internal compass each one obeys.

I’m not believer in journalistic ethics as a cure-all.  Recent mainstream scandals involving reporters asking for autographs and intentionally false stories disseminated on Twitter show that ‘training’ doesn’t equal good judgment.  Personally, when I get a tip, I try and evaluate how true I think it is, not how big I think the story will be.  I used an unnamed source a few weeks ago as a side note to Jeff Saturday’s surgery.  I trusted the person who gave me the information (which was right in line with what was being reported by the team), so I had no problem reporting what they told me.  I certainly wouldn’t have blamed anyone for questioning it, though. My standards might not be as high as Phil B Wilson’s, for example, but I do have them.  Unless I know with some certainty who my source is, how reliable they are, and how their story jives with known facts, I’m not going to report it.

Unfortunately, the easiest thing to do in the world is make up stories and hope they stick.  Mike Lombardi of the NFL Network recently did just that, but has suffered no repercussions at all for his mistake. Maybe the public isn’t watching after all.  Maybe they don’t care.  Maybe they just like being stirred up and entertained, and accuracy doesn’t matter as much as it used to.  Maybe we’re all vegetarians who eschew the steak, but can’t help loving the sizzle.

Currently, the Colts don’t offer press credentials to bloggers, and with stories like this out there, I can’t say that I blame them.  Poorly written, poorly sourced stories that feign to be news but smack of attention grabbing make us all look bad.  Offering to apologize if a story is wrong is not journalism. It’s not anything.  It’s like a husband having an affair because he thinks his wife is cheating on him and figuring he can just say sorry if it turns out she wasn’t.  Wells has generated a wealth of traffic and attention by his story, and that can’t be undone except by the long term effect his lack of credibility has on his readership.

Brad’s story might be true. I hope for his sake (though not the Colts’) that it is, though to this point no other media source has picked it up or commented on it.

The problem is that we can’t trust him.

I have no idea if Brad Wells’ story is true or false.

In a sense, it doesn’t matter.  He has to be held accountable for the fact that due to his past and present choices, no one can tell the difference any more.

If Wells has done his homework this time and has an impecably creditialed source giving him the real scoop…

I will write an apology to my readers (and him) and take my lumps.

On a related note, I just thought I’d mention this:

After Peyton Manning stayed down on the turf last week (at the 7:36 mark of the 4th quarter), he got up and promptly went 8 for 11 for 134 yards, 2 TDs, and a 153.0 passer rating.

For what it’s worth.

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