Attribution, Editorializing and Defamation

In the Nightly Noodle Monthly, former North Adams Transcript journalist Isaac Avilucea posts this passage, which he says was removed from a sports feature that got him fired.

Isaac-Avilucea_avatar_1375220710-86x86But there’s a reason she’s not at MountGreylock anymore, choosing to transfer to a school with somewhat inferior academics and athletics. Part of it has to do with the stuffy social atmosphere that pervades the school. “If you take the movie ‘Mean Girls,’” Alcombright said, “that’s MountGreylock. To be completely honest, everybody at MountGreylock, even though they’re friends and in their friend group, they all hate each other.”

Avilucea has found a largely supportive online audience for his claim that he “got fired for being a journalist.” He is, according to this narrative, the objective professional who came to a narrow-minded little community and dared to print the truth. (Search Google for “got fired for being a journalist.”)

I see what look like rookie mistakes — the kind of mistakes an editor is supposed to catch before publication.

While it would seem harsh to fire a rookie for making a rookie mistake, Avilucea’s accomplishments suggest he is not a rookie. According to this indeed.com resume, Isaac Avilucea has a BA in journalism, he was the managing editor of his college paper, and this is not his first journalism job.

Attribution and Editorializing

Journalism as it developed during the 20th century is, or should at its best be, neutral. The easiest way to spice up those drab litanies of lifeless facts is to include direct quotes from sources close to the story, presenting — in their own words — their observations and considered, expert opinions.

Of course, if I read a book review or a movie review, then I do want the author’s opinion. But in a hard news story, a good journalist should play the role of the invisible observer. In a traditional news story, even an innocuous opinion like “Students had a great time at the festival” is an unacceptable insertion of the reporter’s opinion. (You can quote someone who says “Everyone is having a wonderful time,” or if you are there at midnight and you see dozens of people were dancing in the hallways, you can report that, or you can report a fact like the organizers says a new record of 232 tickets were sold.)

Here is how the Transcript explained the problem:

A segment of the story in question unintentionally cast aspersions on the academics of McCann and colored in a pallor the social environment at Mount Greylock. This serious editorial mistake has caused a great amount of angst for many — and rightfully so. Not only was it unjust on our part to allow this error to see the light of day, but the statements were simply wrong.

So what’s the big deal? It sure looks like the Transcript editor buckled under pressure from community members who did not like that a reporter published the opinions and words of a high school student — and that’s part of the journalist-as-hero narrative I mentioned earlier.

Mistakes and Consequences

If one of my students made two rookie mistakes — presenting an unsourced opinion (that McCann’s academics and athletics are “somewhat inferior” to Mount Greylock’s) as fact and presenting only one side of a controversy from a biased source (the student’s personal opinion that Mount Greylock is socially dysfunctional), I’d instruct the student to reconsider, to rewrite or cut as appropriate, and to be humble and grateful about a lesson learned.

My gut feeling is that firing was too harsh for a rookie’s first offense, which makes the “fired for being a journalist” narrative so appealing. But I don’t see Avilucea as a rookie. Further, I don’t know the dynamics of the North Adams Transcript newsroom, the conditions under which Avilucea was hired, or the context in which this particular routine local sports profile was assigned, edited, and published.

Opinion vs. Defamation

I tell my students it’s fine to write “The meatloaf at Chef Joe’s Diner was dry Thursday” but it’s defamation of character to write “Chef Joe can’t cook.” (For all we know, Joe made a perfectly good meatloaf order, but the waiter left it sitting out for too long. Or maybe the meatloaf served Thursday was actually made by an assistant chef.)

So, the statement “Chef Joe can’t cook” defames Chef Joe personally, impacting his ability to make a living at his trade.

If a journalist writes “Chef Joe can’t cook,” then the journalist is defaming Chef Joe’s character.

If a journalist writes “Sally Smith said ‘Chef Joe can’t cook,'” then by printing the defamatory statement, the journalist is helping Sally Smith defame Chef Joe.

The reporter DID attribute the “Mean Girls” quote to the source, but the bit about “somewhat inferior academics and athletics” is presented as fact. If that passage had been “a school that she said had somewhat inferior academics and athletics,” then it would be clear that the sentence is presenting the source’s opinion, not the reporter’s.

To his credit, Avilucea himself has provided the passages in which I’ve identified what I’ve called rookie mistakes. He’s a good writer, he’s won awards, and he’s appropriately focused on moving ahead.

He has carefully noted that his editor read the story, published the story, and even praised it after publication. He’s not so subtly pointing out that it’s an editor’s job to catch a reporter’s mistakes. A less direct implication is that if his own editor did not find any journalistic problems worth mentioning, then he must have been fired not because of the infractions that were later brought to his attention, but because the editor-in-chief thought it was necessary to appease the angry school administrations.

Even if we rewrite the “inferior” paraphrase to attribute it clearly, think about it. This source is a child. I mean no disrespect to her, but to what extent is any student a credible source for an article’s only opinion on the comparative academics and athletics of two schools?

Recall, too, that the source said, “everybody at MountGreylock, even though they’re friends and in their friend group, they all hate each other.” Is it good journalism to quote what one person says about “everybody” at an entire school? Yes, people frequently use words like “everybody” and “all” in conversation on a regular basis, but what a professional journalist writes in a news story — even if it’s a soft feature on a local student athlete — ought to be held to higher scrutiny.