The Press Has A Duty to Accurate Reporting

This morning we published an article very critical of the local media for publishing inaccurate information. We specifically focused our concern on ABC57, The Elkhart Truth and The Goshen News.

The story of what happened is very simple. ABC57 wrote an email to the Indiana Department of Corrections asking for the new release dates for Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp. The Department of Corrections provided ABC57 with the wrong date for Levi Sparks.  ABC57 published the content of the email with little evaluation and the other news organizations followed along.

This error might be easy to forgive if the mistake itself did not expose a concerning problem — the complete willingness of ABC57 to not question the content of a government email and instead rush to publication.

The question the media was asking was correct – they wanted to know the new release dates for Levi, Blake and Anthony – so they emailed the Department of Corrections — here is the answer ABC57 got.

New-Release-Dates

The email with the Department of Corrections error.

Here is the problem. The Department of Corrections gave Levi Sparks a later release date than Blake Layman.

On January 7, 2016 Levi Sparks was re-sentenced to 9 years in prison, Anthony Sharp and Blake Layman 10. With the 50% credit Levi Sparks should be serving 4.5 years while Anthony Sharp and Blake Layman should get 5 years.  You will notice in the email there is mention of inappropriate behavior causing a longer sentence for Anthony Sharp (the behavior of Mr. Sharp is very concerning to this blog.)  There is no such mention of behavior concerns for Levi Sparks, so why the extra six months?

At the re-sentencing it became very evident that Blake and Levi have successfully completed programs and are eligible for their credit.  So why would Levi Sparks have an extra 6 months in prison?

ABC57 knew the information about Levi’s good behavior in prison – they reported on it on January 7, 2016.

The Society of Professional Journalists state in their code of ethics,

Journalists should:

  • Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify . . .
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
  • Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

Did ABC57 live up to these expectations?  We examine this by looking at each of the selected expectations . . .

Provide a context?
At sentencing the lawyers for Levi Sparks and Blake Layman stated that they felt that both men would be released in 2016 because of the successful completion of programs in prison. The email from the Department of Corrections contradicted this. Did ABC57 question the DOC about this? Did ABC57 try and provide a context for this difference NO – But another news organization, WSBT22, did and after questioning the DOC it turns out that the lawyers for Layman and Sparks were correct.  By taking a government email at face value and publishing it quickly ABC57 chose to oversimplify the process and not fully research and debate what goes into the calculation of the sentence for an inmate . . which is actually a story many in Indiana would be very interested in seeing.

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable?
A quick moment with the math of Levi Sparks sentence (9 ÷ 2 = 4.5) demonstrates that something is wrong with the data presented by the state’s email. Why would Levi Sparks, sentenced to 9 years, get more time then Blake who was sentenced to 10 years? Did ABC57 ask that question of the people at the DOC? Did they demand to understand the discrepancy? Did ABC57 demand accuracy from those in power before freely trusting and publishing the content of a government email?  Unfortunately not. In fact they did nothing until after their mistake was pointed out to them.  In the end it was WSBT22 who did the heavy lifting.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

Yes, ABC57 has acknowledged their mistake – that is a positive. In their acknowledgment they place the full responsibility on the government and take no responsibility for not questioning what is obviously a glaring discrepancy.  But in the process of acknowledging their mistake they have also limited the ability of people to point out future mistakes. By closing communication links with those who report mistakes ABC57 is placing their ego ahead of their responsibility for in-depth detailed and accurate reporting.  We here at http://www.freetheelkhart4.com and @elkhart4 will not close those same communication links with ABC57.

Banned from Twitter

This is how ABC57 responds to members of the public who identify errors and call into question the accuracy of their reporting.

 

IDOC-Error-Corrected

The email correcting the Department of Corrections error.

 

2 comments

  • As disturbing as the mistake by ABC57 News is, an even bigger issue is the mistake by DOC. How can we trust they do not release inmates too early? Or release inmates that are not eligible? Or keep inmates in longer than appropriate?

    As long as human error is a factor these mistakes keep happening. Sad….

    • You are correct . . .the DOC mistake is a concern and they have a responsibility to maintain exceptional records . . who do we need to play a major role holding our government accountable? The media — so when ABC57 does not question government information and just publishes it we need to be concerned and expose it. This entire situation was resolved, but how many other situations do government officials give incorrect information to media who don’t question that information?