Reporter Failure, Editor Failure, or Tool Failure?

Telephone: Useful, but don't trust it.What are the new-media lessons, if any, to be drawn from the resignation earlier this month of Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock? Her immediate reason for resigning was having a prominent correction slapped onto one of her stories, the second in the last five months. Most of the discussion about her resignation has focused on who’s to blame. WaPo ombudsman Patrick Pexton says that “The Post failed her as much as she failed The Post.” On The Awl, Trevor Butterworth says WaPo is more at fault.

What caught my eye in this story, though, was a different kind of failure, one involving not reporters or editors, but the tools they use.

In an earlier article on Flock’s first corrected story last December, Pexton focused similarly on failures involving the human element. In this story, Flock incorrectly attributed to the Romney presidential campaign the use of an old Ku Klux Klan slogan. Although she tried to contact campaign representatives by e-mail, their reply correcting the story was lost in the WaPo spam filter. Quoting executive editor Marcus Brauchli, Pexton concluded that “‘We had a reporter failure and we had an editor failure.’”

But then he went on to raise a quite different kind of failure:

“Another problem here is that too many reporters see the computer as their main tool of the trade. I’m old-fashioned, and I think the telephone is still the first tool of the trade if you can’t do a personal interview. Fine to use the Internet for some basic research, or in a pinch to e-mail a source for a comment, but it’s faster and often better to call. You get more nuance, more spontaneity, and you usually get a real human being to answer a question. E-mail is too easily ignored; a person on the phone is harder to put off.”

My first reaction to this was an odd mixture of agreement and skepticism. I think it’s true that younger journalists tend to rely too much on online tools and not enough on old ones like the telephone. But Pexton’s suggestion that the Internet is only good for basic research or as a last resort is wrong too.

All of these tools are useful. But they all fail at times as well. The key is to use them all and to trust none.

One thought on “Reporter Failure, Editor Failure, or Tool Failure?

  1. HI John:

    Allow me to raise a side issue to your discussion about the wisdom of using all tools at your disposal. That is, to what degree to readers of this column make appriate use of tools like telephones or e-mail when it comes to reacting to inquiries from other parties?

    I attempt — and for the most part am successful — in responding to inquiries within 24 hours . . . and sometimes much sooner than that. In most cases when initiating a conversation, I’d rather start with a phone call than an e-mail. I believe many folks have gotten into an e-mail rut. There are some occasions when an endless e-mail should be preceded by a quick phone call to introduce the matter. I could provide a few examples of when the phone call first approach is advisable. But I’d rather do that after hearing or reading how others feel about phone first vs. phone never . . . vs. e-mail then phone . . . vs. e-mail only. It is always vexing for me to encounter somebody who falls into the latter category when it’s clear that a different communications approach would be more productive.

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