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Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Media ethics and law prof blogging

I am quoted today in an op-ed in the Daily Tar Heel. (H/T: My former colleague Joel Goldstein). The op-ed discusses the motion filed by former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong, the main culprit in the Duke lacrosse mess, seeking to dismiss the ยง 1983 actions against him on absolute prosecutorial immunity grounds (and without seeing the motion, I have argued previously that he has a pretty strong argument). The op-ed, clearly not coming close to understanding what prosecutorial immunity is all about, argues that Nifong should not have immunity because by "withholding DNA evidence, Nifong clearly deprived the defendants of their right to due process." Um, yeah, but the point of immunity is that does not matter, because other policy concerns trump. AndI did not read the piece as arguing that prosecutors should not have immunity (an arguable point), only that Nifong should not.

Anyway, I am identified as a Saint Louis University law professor and described as saying that Nifong only has immunity for those things he did as an advocate for the state. One problem--I never spoke with anyone at the Daily Tar Heel at any point. (Actually, I suppose a second problem is that I no longer teach at SLU, so there is a pretty glaring factual error there that would get them nailed in a newswriting course). The "comment" attributed to me was something I wrote in one of several posts, here and at Sports Law Blog, analyzing the players' lawsuits against Nifong, Duke, and others.

So, my question--Did the authors of the piece act appropriately (as a matter of journalistic practice) in attributing a comment to me without identifying it as something I wrote on a blog and attributing the blog? Is it OK for reporters to make it sound instead as if we had had a conversation? I am not suggesting that journalists should not read blogs as part of their reporting or that they should not report what they see written here. Indeed, one purpose of blogging is to be part of the broader public conversation beyond the academy, so having newspapers report on what we write here goes a long way to making us part of that conversation. My question is strictly how journalists should describe the source of a comment when they get it not from an interview, but from something the source has written.


The journalist should correctly identify the source of the material being used. If the writer is taking it from an interview then that includes the name of the individual and biographical info. If it comes from written material, the source of the information should be noted. At best it is lazy reporting to not have such attribution. At worst it is an attempt by the writer to distort the source of the information.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/28/2009 12:44 PM  

The editorial uses the verb "posits" not "said". My dictionary defines posits as to put forth or suggest. I don't think that implies that they talked to you or that you made the suggestion in verbal rather than written discourse. If you wrote this while at St. Louis University, I don't see the problem.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/28/2009 4:50 PM  

In my previous position as a researcher for a sports magazine, I struggled with this issue constantly. Part of my proof-reading responsibilities was to verify quotes used in our articles and frequently our writers would not provide detailed attribution.
For example, they would write that "Bill Cowher, coach of the Steelers, said, 'Our offense performed sporadically, but Ben made good decisions on third down plays and that was key to sustaining drives.'" They would not say if Cowher was:
a) speaking to them in a one-on-one interview
b) addressing a few reporters in the stadium hallway or his office
c) in front of a large group in the media room
d) on his post-game radio show
e) being quoted by another media outlet such as the Post-Gazette.
I would bring up this issue with our editors, but they did not seem to feel this was important.
How much detail should be included and is the same level of detail needed for every quote?

Anonymous james meier -- 1/28/2009 10:38 PM  


I'm not sure I'd call it "unethical" but it is bad journalism. He should have contacted you if only to verify that you wrote it (and that you still worked at SLU).

In any case, he should have identified it as a web posting so the reader would be aware of the circumstances in which it was obtained.

Blogger JimmyG -- 1/29/2009 8:05 PM  

If you read the first four paragraphs of the actual article, it is made to appear that Prof. Wasserman made his statement after Nifong's motion, which of course is not what happened.

I think the writer was trying to make it look like he or she had interviewed Prof. Wasserman in the wake of the story. Bad job, and in my opinion it was no accident.

Anonymous Glenn -- 2/04/2009 10:59 AM  

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