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From rumor to reporting: The Washington Times story

This week, a major story about The Washington Times broke, but news coverage of the change in ownership at the faltering paper began and ended in two vastly different places. Let's take a look, step by step, at how the story about the Times evolved over the last few days -- and how the coverage reflects the new pathways of Internet journalism, warts and all.

Step 1: On Monday, a post appeared on the local blog, which covers Washington area radio and TV news and gossip. The post was labeled an "exclusive" and tagged with clip art of an exclamation point. The brief piece reported that the Times "is close to closing" and that its executives are "finished" with the paper and "couldn't care less" about any buyers' offers. The website's author, Dave Hughes, did not say if he tried to reach Times officials, nor did the piece contain any named sources or describe any anonymous source. The only attribution for the item was that DCRTV had "heard that" the Times was on the verge of closing.

It turns out that Hughes's reporting consisted of receiving an anonymous email. In an interview, Hughes, 52, of Reston, said he occasionally receives reliable tips about the Times from the same email account. Hughes said he has no clue who the source is. "I just get this source sending me this stuff blindly," he says. "I don't know if it's a man or a woman. I just know the email address. I don't know who it is. I get people like that all the time."

Hughes has been running his web site for about 13 years. "I am not at The Washington Post, so I don't have to know exactly who it is," he says. "I don't consider myself to be a journalist." He added that he didn't feel any need to call the Times for confirmation of the item because "I don't have anyone there who will talk to me."

Step 2: The unconfirmed blog post went viral. Several prominent media outlets pirated sizable chunks of DCRTV's story, adding few if any new morsels. The Huffington Post published its own story, copying and pasting about half of DCRTV's piece. The traffic-savvy site's story, "Washington Times Near Closure: DCRTV," netted about 180 comments, extending the story to Twitter and Facebook.

Other reputable websites couldn't resist doing the same: The Washington Examiner, which said it made several calls to the paper's publicist but got no answer, lifted parts of DCRTV's report and slapped on the headline: "Washington Times to meet its end ... again?"

The next day, Washington City Paper's Dave McKenna recycled DCRTV's rumor, but repackaged it in a piece speculating that Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder was going to buy the Times, based largely on the fact that he had sat with Times staffers at the recent White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. McKenna's story does not say if he called the Times or the Redskins to check things out. He updated the story later by tacking on at the very end, "Update: Snyder Says No," a link to a follow-up story saying that Snyder's spokesman called him to say he was wrong.

Then the Radio Business/Television Business Report got in the game. Their piece, "Washington Times Back on Death Watch," revealed how the Huffington Post seemingly brings legitimacy to a story broken by a smaller news outlet. The article's top began: "Rumors are abounding in Washington DC, and taken national by Huffington Post, that conservative newspaper and Washington Post alternative Washington Times is once again near extinction." piled on, too. Like so many of the other reports, the website failed to mention whether its reporter made a call to the Times to check things out. Under the headline "As The Washington Times Lay Dying," DCist said that the "paper's last rites have all been delivered" and that "calling the Times a newspaper is awfully generous." (For the record: in April, a Times freelance photographer Mary F. Calvert was named one of two Pulitzer Prize feature photography finalists for her work documenting rapes in Congo; and this week, Heather Murdock's stories on Yemen for the Times won an Associated Press Managing Editors contest award for international reporting.)

Step 4: Actual reporting happened. The Washington Post, Politico and FishbowlDC reported Tuesday night that...the Times is going to be saved.

Contrary to DCRTV's rumor about the paper's possible closure, the next round of stories -- these using a mix of on-the-record and anonymous sources -- reported that the Times's top executive, Preston Moon, is negotiating to sell the newspaper to a Unification Church entity funded and controlled by his father, the church's founder, Rev. Sun Myung Moon. On Wednesday morning, the Associated Press followed with its own story.

Step 5: The purveyor of the original rumor corrected itself. On Wednesday, Hughes filed a post on DCRTV headlined "Daddy Moon Close to Re-Buying WashTimes," nearly half of which comes directly from my story in The Post; the rest is recycled background and a helpful link to Politico's story that actually quotes the Times's editor, Sam Dealey.

So, in about 48 hours, a rumor was first spread unchecked from an individual blogger to larger blog operations and a major Internet news aggregator. Then -- after reporting by a large daily newspaper, a large web news operation and a midsized media gossip site -- news stories appeared debunking the initial rumor and developing an important news story about the Washington Times and its continuing troubles.

The question for readers is: Are you better served by this process, in which unvetted rumors are published and then worked through all in the public eye; or by the old-fashioned way, in which reporters would check rumors and fully report a story before publication; or by some hybrid third way in which news organizations might put out unchecked rumors and prominently label them as such while launching their own reporting and asking readers to help out with any information they might have? Is there still such a thing as responsible withholding of information until it is confirmed? Do you lend more credence to news organizations that make the calls and do the checks before publishing, or do you prefer to see the raw material at first blush, even if it hasn't been checked yet?

By Ian Shapira  | August 26, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism , More on the story, The inside story  
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Both rumor-publishing and journalism have their place, but there needs to be a wall between them somehow. I don't blame DCRTV for publishing rumors, if they feel like there's something behind them -- the real problem is the way that (supposedly) more reputable organizations just repeat and regurgitate the same rumors as if they were "news".

Posted by: eandab2003 | August 26, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Within moments of the HuffPo piece I immediately posted a comment pointing out the careless journalism of the piece, providing clear detailed knowledge of the paper, its history, and its founder.

Huffpo screened my comments and rejected them twice, even tho in the interim Huffpo posted comment after comment from HuffPo stars with badges and recognition stickers, comments like: "Now what am I going to wipe my butt with."

HuffPo would not run my comments which clarified careless mistakes in their piece because I stated clearly and pointed out with data how ignorant and careless the article author was.

Rumor indeed

Posted by: religiouswatch | August 26, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Who cares? Does it make any difference to the great unwashed whether the Washington Times lives or dies, or that reporters are spending any effort to document it. No wonder the Post is losing money if you are spending any effort on this story. There is a murder of a bicylist at Sherman Circle who was a hard-working AU student. That warrants some coverage, for example.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | August 26, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

In answer to Shapira's final paragraph, I'd say that the second way might be nice, but increasingly the Post cannot be trusted to bother reporting local news on a timely basis, if at all,

The Post's ombudsman recently wrote about how the Post failed to provide timely reports of the Metro brawl.

My own experience in tracking PG County homicides is that the Post reports some promptly, but others not for days, especially if the murder happens over a weekend. When I'm not traveling, I often have basic homicide reports, based on official sources, on my blog before the Post gets around to reporting them.

So, my question for Shapira is this: Is the reader better served by waiting and gambling on whether the Post will bother reporting a story, or by reviewing blogs that provide early reports on stories the Post may or may not decide to cover later, if at all.

Posted by: dcrussell | August 26, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

I'd be real careful expressing what appears to be the holier than though attitude of the Post. The paper was pretty well suckered over, among other things, the Iraq war, and didn't seem to be particularly good at fact checking that fiasco. Secondly, Mr. Hughes is quite clear at DCRTV that he prints rumors and that the reader is free to take them however he/she wants.

Posted by: upperdeck4 | August 26, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

"Other reputable websites couldn't resist doing the same: The Washington Examiner"

???? Reputable? Well, they sure do have a reputation. Didn't know that made them reputable.

I'm OK with WaPo trying to defend it's honor in this era of online media running wild, but showing disdain towards and the near constant negligence in crediting for stories is a bit too self-serving.

Posted by: NotForYou1 | August 26, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Here's some cold, hard reality: regularly breaks local media news, and it angers other local media writers greatly. And that is NOT bashing or criticizing or even saying anything negative about these other writers, who are very talented and good reporters. But what happens is this: Many local media types like to drop accurate news bombs to Dave Hughes, because they cannot do the same with the other media, for various rumors. Dave has said repeatedly that he is not a "mainstream," regular reporter, and he says that upfront, clearly and regularly. But the flip side is this: Many of his rumors, items, pieces, posts and stories have indeed proven accurate. He has been out in front of several major local media stories--at least half a dozen--in just recent weeks. That's before anyone else, mind you, including some of the bigger, splashier local media writers. They have had to follow Have there been missteps at the site? Yes. Have there been missteps at every single other local media outlet? Yes. Everyone breaks stories, and everyone follows stories--that is the nature of journalism, big entity, or small entity. The best route is to check out the real facts of anything anyone runs, of course.

Posted by: thefrontpage | August 26, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

I agree with thefrontpage, Dave is most often right than wrong. I apply the 80/20 rule to him. 80% he is right, 20% not. If you to the site regularly, like I do, you go into it with that mindset. The Post has made it's share of mistakes, as well as the NY times. But as mentioned, he never has portrayed himself as a journalist.

Posted by: phillyfan2 | August 26, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

Honestly, I don't care. I just want that rag gone.

Posted by: ravensfan20008 | August 26, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

One can only hope the rag folds. Take The Examiner with you.

Posted by: jckdoors | September 1, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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