Last Week in Bad Journalism: Des Moines Register

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It was a great, feel-good story that dropped right in the laps of the Des Moines Register two weeks ago and they turned it into one of the most glaring examples of bad journalism since the week before.

ESPN’s College Gameday was in Ames Iowa for the annual intrastate rivalry between the Iowa State Cyclones and the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. (Iowa came from behind to win 18-17.) When ESPN comes to town, so do college football fans and their signs. Some of them are funny.

Carson King, a 24-year-old security guard at a tribal casino, showed up with a sign asking for money for his Busch Light beer supply. His sign appeared briefly on TV and soon he had more than $600 in his Venmo account. At this point, he decided that he really didn’t need that much beer money and vowed to donate what he received to the University of Iowa’s Stead Children’s Hospital.

And then the feel-good began in earnest

By Monday afternoon, word of the fundraiser reached the national media, including this piece on ESPN.

Venmo and Busch beer vowed to match whatever King raised. Within days the promised donations topped $1 million. As of this weekend, it has reportedly topped $2 million. Busch promised King a year’s worth of beer and suggested they would put King on the cans with the moniker “Iowa Legend.”

Bad journalism Des Moines Register style

Enter Des Moines Register reporter Aaron Calvin, the paper’s trending news reporter. Assigned to do a story on King, Calvin does what any competent reporter would do, and then some. He talked to Calvin, he talked to family and people who know him, including his current employer and his high school principal.

The Register’s “journalism” nowadays also includes “background checks” of everyday citizens who make news by doing good. So, Calvin searched back through King’s old tweets and discovered two tweets that were apparently problematic. The tweets have been characterized as racist, but they were also apparently not original to King, but quotes or retweets of comedian Daniel Tosh who has a series on Comedy Central.

They were also more than seven years old. King was apparently 16 at the time the tweets were posted.

King immediately apologized and, when informed that this fact would be included in the profile the Register was working on of him, he wisely called a press conference with a local TV station to confess and get in front of the story.

Carol Hunter’s bad call

Carol Hunter is the Executive Editor of the Register. Ultimately, the buck should stop at her door.

It doesn’t.

After the story broke, the Register attempted to justify its decision to include tweets made by an individual when they were 16 years old in what is basically a puff piece.

 

Let’s be clear what exactly the Register did with its background check. What it did not do: Scroll through 7+ years of tweets. What it did do: Went to his feed and did a keyword search for “problematic” terms.

The paper’s pro-publish argument that people donating to a Children’s Hospital should know about two jokes the lead fundraiser made seven years ago in high school is laughable.

I just got done on Friday spending three weeks as a substitute teacher in a single class teaching high school freshmen algebra. You want to know what anyone who interacts with high school students knows? They’re almost uniformly idiots. They lack filters. They lack common sense. They say and do stupid things.

The Des Moines Register discovered that high school students are dumb—that is not newsworthy.

Hunter closes her lame apologia with a reference to the public good. However, she fails to identify anywhere what public good is served by sliming a 24-year-old who’s raising money for sick children.

In a follow-up editor’s note, Hunter attempts to justify the use of the old tweets with this logic:

Some of you wonder why journalists think it’s necessary to look into someone’s past. It’s essential because readers depend on us to tell a complete story.

In this case, our initial stories drew so much interest that we decided to write a profile of King, to help readers understand the young man behind the handmade sign and the outpouring of donations to the children’s hospital. The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King.

In doing backgrounding for such a story, reporters talk to family, friends, colleagues or professors. We check court and arrest records as well as other pertinent public records, including social media activity. The process helps us to understand the whole person.

There have been numerous cases nationally of fundraising for a person experiencing a tragedy that was revealed as a scam after media investigated the backgrounds of the organizer or purported victim.

As journalists, we have the obligation to look into matters completely, to aid the public in understanding the people we write about and in some cases to whom money is donated.

This is an excellent explanation of why background work is done, but this doesn’t explain publishing the old tweets. Are teenagers posting dumb things on Twitter evidence that years lager they will attempt to defraud people?

The facts that Calvin unearthed and Hunter decided to publish don’t indicate a scam going on. They indicate that teenagers are stupid. Which is why they can’t vote, sign contracts, be tried as adults (usually), serve in the military, drink beer, smoke cigarettes or rent cars.

Hunter is ultimately responsible for the decision to publish the article including the superfluous content, but she has paid no price.

Do you really want to play this game?

The media has been doing this for awhile.

Last year Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy as College Football’s top player. Within hours the media scoured his Twitter feed and came up with years old, “homophobic” tweets.

CNN confronted a woman who “liked” a bit of Russian propaganda on Facebook during the 2016 election season.

CNN also threatened to “out” or “dox” a Reddit user who made a viral meme of Trump throwing CNN out of a wrestling ring.

The mainstream media has set the standard. So Twitter users, largely on the political right, decided that they can play the game too…they did a search of reporter Aaron Calvin’s Twitter feed. You won’t be surprised at what they found.

Calvin’s tweets included ones that also fall into the large categories of “racist,” “misogynistic,” and “anti-gay.” There were more of them than had appeared in King’s Twitter feed. They were more recent than those that appeared in King’s Twitter feed. Calvin was a legal adult when the tweets were made.

And Thursday, a couple days after this all blew up on Twitter, Hunter fired her reporter. A reporter who was only subjected to the online mob because of a decision made by his editors. Let’s be clear, if Calvin’s editors had decided not to print anything about the tweets, no one would’ve been checking his own Twitter history.

Lessons not learned

After his firing, Calvin went to his former employer, Buzzfeed, to tell his side of the story. In talking to Buzzfeed, Calvin revealed that he still doesn’t get it.

“I recognize that I’m not the first person to be doxed like this — this whole campaign was taken up by right-wing ideologues and largely driven by that force,” he said. “It was just a taste of what I assume that women and journalists of color suffer all the time, but the kind of locality and regional virality of the story made it so intense.”

Though Calvin said he regrets his tweets, he thinks they were taken out of context by bad actors to make him look like a racist and homophobe.

Yeah, a reporter being held to the standard to which they hold a reportee is “doxing.” Calvin’s a white guy, but he’d like to join the women/people of color victim club.

But if Calvin hasn’t learned his lesson, it’s even more clear that Hunter and the rest of the newsroom leadership hasn’t learned theirs either.

Calvin’s old tweets were sufficient reason not to hire him in the first place. They’re not a sufficient reason to sack him now. You know if he’s a good reporter. You know if he represents your paper well. He’s not an unknown quantity.

The decision to include the years old tweets in the story was Hunter’s and her subordinate editors. The idea that if they didn’t report on them, then someone else would is not a valid journalistic justification for publishing. In fact, it’s far easier to defend not publishing those tweets than it is for publishing them.

Make no mistake, the Register hasn’t learned its lesson. They sacrificed the low man on the totem pole as an attempt to please the mob, but, aside from King himself, Calvin is probably the least culpable individual in this whole sordid story.

You’ll know when they’re serious when Hunter is forced into retirement.

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