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Mar 28 / King Kaufman

Writer gets burned for failing to dig and ignoring Lennay’s Law

We’ve been talking a lot around here lately about verification and citing sources.

But these terrific examples of the pitfalls keep coming up, so I’m going to keep talking.

As Fishbowl DC reported yesterday, the San Jose Mercury News posted a story about President Obama offering American soccer player Landon Donovan the use of Air Force One to fly down to the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier.

It was a joke. The “story” came from this tweet from ESPN’s Dana Wessell:

The Mercury News’ Elliott Almond turned that into a short story for MercuryNews.com. That story is no longer visible, but as Fishbowl DC and other sites noted yesterday, it was still up, uncorrected, more than 24 hours after its original posting, and nearly that long after Almond tweeted that the story had been revised. Fishbowl’s post provides a screenshot.

So what went wrong? Well, Almond broke Lennay’s Law, which is “Tell us what you know, and tell us how you know it.” In his story, the news is unattributed, as if it had just dropped out of the sky. Wessell did the same, of course. But he was joking. Still, if you’re trying to verify a story, don’t rely on someone who’s not down with Lennay’s Law.

Worse than that, though, Almond tweeted at one point—nearly two hours after his story posted (the UTC time code that appears in the embed below represents 1:58 p.m. PDT)—that he hadn’t been able to verify the Obama-Donovan story:

Some very basic digging would have confirmed that Wessell’s “news” was nonexistent. Was Wessell at the White House? A check of his timeline would have made it clear he wasn’t. Did Wessell get the news from another reporter then? Donovan was at the White House because the Los Angeles Galaxy and Los Angeles Kings were being honored for their recent championships. When the president makes a joke about a national team to a prominent athlete at a public event at the White House, it’s going to be talked about. No one else was reporting it.

According to time stamps, Wessell tweeted his joke at 11:08 a.m. PDT. Almond’s story was posted at 12:07. Wessell tweeted other things at 11:12 and 11:55. Why didn’t Almond just tweet at Wessell for clarification?

Here’s B/R’s primer and checklist on verifying sources. Keep digging. Find the original source of a news report or rumor. The Internet sees all. If you try to cut corners, you’ll trip up.