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Wired News hack in fake-sources brouhaha

Just a bit of harmless colour

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Comment Freelance journo and frequent Wired News contributor Michelle Delio is in a bit of a bind, after her editors found it impossible to confirm numerous quoted sources in her stories. As of 9 May, Wired News has amended 24 of Delio's stories in which sources could not be identified.

In March, MIT's Technology Review pulled two Delio stories for the same reason, and in April, InfoWorld amended four of her pieces to remove quoted material that could not be verified.

The review of Delio's work for Wired News was performed by Adam Pennenberg of New York University, who outed New Republic journalist Stephen Glass as a prolific fabricator back in 1998.

Delio is not accused of falsifying the main points of her stories. But there is an extraordinary pattern of her sources being unreachable, something that should happen only occasionally. People do change jobs, move house, and so on; but 30 stories with shaky sources in four years' time suggests deliberate manipulation of the facts.

Still, Delio says she stands behind her work. "I don't understand why my credibility and career are now hanging solely on finding minor sources that contributed color quotes to stories I filed months and years ago," the Associated Press quotes her as wondering.

Well, the answer to that apparent mystery is quite simple. Journalists are expected to refrain from publishing as fact anything they know or suspect to be false, to give readers a heads up when they use anonymous sources and unconfirmed documents, and to express their own opinions honestly.

They are expected not to take money for expressing the opinions of others, as Armstrong Williams recently did. They are expected not to invent stories and sources, as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair have done - not even for mere "color quotes."

It's not complicated. Journalists are expected to assert only what they know or believe to be true. When they publish facts that they can't verify, or when they quote people who won't speak on the record, they're expected to be up-front about it, so that readers can decide how much to credit them. When they work from documents that are uncertain, they're expected to say so instead of presenting them without adequate qualification, as the now hastily-retired Dan Rather recently did with shaky documents regarding George W Bush's Air National Guard service.

"CBS News has obtained evidence suggesting that the President misled the public about his Guard service" would be an excellent lead. "CBS News has learned that the President misled the public about his Guard service" would be a bald-faced lie. Does anyone not grasp the distinction there?

Yet Delio - supposedly an intelligent member of the tech press corps - expresses surprise at the fuss about her "color quotes" in stories that are, well, out of date anyway. She seems not to understand that there is no such thing as a "little white lie" in journalism. It's always a big deal when a journalist knowingly misleads their readers. The fact that a story's main points might be accurate is not a defence. ®

Update Whilst pontificating about accuracy in the press, we managed, with some irony, to misspell the name Penenberg, which appears incorrectly as "Pennenberg" above. The Register regrets the error.

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