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Mar 18 / King Kaufman

Verification: You can’t just trust “trusted” journalism brands

Tia Norfleet / Getty Images

Tia Norfleet / Getty Images

Two stories in recent weeks highlighted a big problem with relying on established journalism brands to verify facts in news stories: Established journalism brands are not always as trustworthy as we’d like to think they are.

As we saw in the hoax involving Manti Te’o's nonexistent girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, major, trusted news organizations sometimes repeat things without checking on them.

Earlier this month we learned from Viv Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, that several years’ worth of stories about stock-car driver Tia Norfleet—including those in such august publications as the Washington Post, ESPN, AOL Fanhouse and the Huffington Post—have been factually inaccurate, repeating false but checkable claims by Norfleet about her accomplishments in NASCAR.

Around the same time, a satirical story in the Daily Currant about economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman declaring personal bankruptcy was picked up as real news by several websites, including the mendacious right-wing site Breitbart.com, yes, but also including Boston.com, the website affiliated with the Boston Globe, one of America’s great newspapers.

The watchdog organization Media Matters for America reported that Boston.com editor Ron Agrella claimed his editorial operation never touched the Krugman post, which was syndicated from an outfit called FinancialContent.

What all this means is that if you’re trying to verify a rumor or news report, the fact that it appears on the site of an established, respected journalistic outlet with a robust, professional editorial operation does not, by itself, confirm anything. You have to keep digging. You have to hold everyone, even the Boston Globe, Washington Post or New York Times, to “Lennay’s Law”: Tell us what you know, and tell us how you know it. If the second half is missing, don’t trust the first.

Dan Bonato, B/R’s Director of Quality Control, updated his 2011 B/R Blog post Verifying sources: A primer and checklist last week to emphasize that, especially with syndicated content, you can’t assume that a report has been vetted through the publishing outlet’s own editorial process.

Bleacher Report has run stories about Norfleet as well, repeating the false claim that she is a NASCAR-licensed driver. We have added updates to those stories reflecting the report that Norfleet and the media outlets that have profiled her have exaggerated her accomplishments.

Here’s a good rundown of the journalistic mess of the Norfleet story by Andrew Bucholtz at Awful Announcing.