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Aug 5 / King Kaufman

How the New York Times didn’t fall for a report from others’ “sources”

In this week’s version of the newsletter I sent out to all Bleacher Report writers every Monday, I mentioned that three consecutive posts on this blog last week dealt with verification, attribution and plagiarism issues.

B/R Featured Columnist Ray Glier, a veteran Atlanta journalist, responded with a story from his days working for the New York Times. With Glier’s permission, I’m going to reproduce that reply, because it’s a good one—the other side of what I kept saying last week: If only they had used proper attribution and verification techniques!

Glier has also written for USA Today, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. Here’s what he wrote me:

Here is one I learned from a veteran editor at The New York Times.

On Oct. 1, 2006, the Los Angeles Times published a story that said Houston Astros pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were named in a federal affidavit as steroid users.

The L.A. Times never saw the affidavit without the redacted names. It used sources.

Eighteen months later, the paper was embarrassed because when the affidavit was released, Clemens and Pettitte were not mentioned. There was a retraction—of course—plus a scolding from a judge and Clemens’ attorney.

Here is the teaching point.

Bob Goetz was an editor in Sports at The New York Times when I did some work for The Times out of Atlanta. I had to do some follow-up on Clemens and Pettitte.

Goetz said the New York Times would NOT refer to the Los Angeles Times story and the oft-use phrase “according to a story in …”

“What if the L.A. Times is wrong and we repeat what they claim in our own story,” Goetz said. “We have reported an inaccuracy.”

This is why you hope people smarter than you edit your stories.

The L.A. Times was wrong. It is why original reporting is so important. Evidently, the Times never saw the affidavit. Be careful.

These are the most dreaded words in our business. At least I think so. They come from an L.A. Times spokesperson: “We regret our report was inaccurate and (we) will run a correction.”

Understand, the L.A. Times had veteran journalists who were talented and careful and wise. Still, people can make mistakes.

I want to break news. It is what we do. Just be careful about “off the record,” and “sources.”

If the New York Times, or any other paper, had written “According to a story in the L.A. Times …” they would have owed the players a retraction. Plenty of papers used the story.