Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Yo. Jersey. Wanna buy a bridge?

Fact-checking tends to be an underexplored part of the deskly life, in part because rim rats generally don't have time for the sort of full-bore, line-by-line sifting that magazines boast of. Like a traffic cop, you're not going to be very effective if you try to pull over every car you see, or every Nth one, or every Escort. But you can make better stops -- meaning better chances of picking off the bad guys and lower chances of irritating the civilians -- if you have a well-organized set of suspicions that you apply in order.

Here are some points of suspicion in a real story -- ripped from today's headlines, as it were -- and some conclusions they can lead to. Numbers refer to notes below the story:

Original 9-11 flag missing
It's believed to have been taken from site shortly after attacks
The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) (1)
HACKENSACK, N.J. - It's one of the most famous flags in American history, (2) destined to take its place alongside Francis Scott Key's star-spangled banner and the symbol of sacrifice and triumph at Iwo Jima.
It's the flag hoisted at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, by three New York City firefighters, immortalized in the photo by The Record's (3) Tom Franklin and taken to heart by millions as an emblem of the loss and heroism of that horrible day.
And the search for the flag has come up empty. (4)
The flag raised over the ruins of the World Trade Center was taken by firefighter Dan McWilliams from the Star of America yacht, docked near the site. It measured 3 feet by 5 feet. The flag returned a year later to the yacht's owners, Spiros Kopelakis and Shirley Dreifus, measured 5 feet by 8 feet.
It wasn't the same flag. (5)
"The city of New York lost the flag," Dreifus said.
She and Kopelakis say they tried suing the city administration to get them to find the flag, but their lawsuit seeking $525,000 in damages fizzled after the couple ran out of money. (6)
"The reason we came forward to say the flag was lost was so nobody could sell it on eBay," (7)Dreifus said. "It belongs in a museum, where people can see it. Or it belongs downtown. I have absolutely no idea where it is."
Dreifus said she and her husband were planning to donate the flag to the Smithsonian Institution. They believe the original flag was taken from ground zero soon after 9-11, because the larger flag bears the signatures of Rudolph Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg and other dignitaries who visited the site less than two weeks after the attacks on the twin towers.
The larger flag flew on U.S. ships serving in the war in Afghanistan, then was returned to New York in March 2002 to tour firehouses and police stations. It came back to Dreifus and Kopelakis when they planned a benefit cruise for fallen firefighters in 2002.
Calls for comment from New York City officials were not immediately returned. (8)
Franklin's photo seemed, more than any other image, (9) to capture that day's conflicting emotions of anger, sadness and pride. Franklin said that even now, he receives messages from people who were moved by the image.
"The flag should be treated as historic," he said. "The photo has meant so much to so many people. It saddens me to know the flag is not being treated with respect."

1) Not all stories that move on the wires are created equal. Stuff from the New York Times has gone through the Times' editing process before it shows up on the NYTimes News Service; stuff from Lakeland or Sarasota hasn't. A small paper is likely to have a significantly different --usually weaker -- editing machine. Alert perimeter guards.
2) Superlative alert. Whenever you see a superlative or absolute construction (even padded with a "one of the ...") in a lede, a list of runners-up and a breakdown of the scoring should follow. Here, it looks like painting the lily. Raise threat level one step.
3) Self-promotion alert. News value of story likely to fall off significantly if your paper is not The Record. Which it ain't. Raise threat level another step.
4) Delayed-impact news peg. This looks like the why-we're-running-this, and the verb tense suggests that it's not a Tuesday story but a sometime-this-week story. If that isn't borne out at some point in the text, you have a problem. Circulate description of intruder.
5) Sun-rises-in-East alert. Having just told you it can't be the same flag, writer proceeds to tell you it isn't the same flag! Issue live ammunition to copydesk.
6) Yacht-owning couple ran out of money to pursue half-million-dollar lawsuit? Sound general quarters and initiate search.

Remember, Google isn't a source; it's a way of getting to sources. Execute a narrow search there and in any relevant Lexis-Nexis spots you can reach. The yacht owner has a fairly distinctive name; try searching for 'kopelakis' and 'flag.' Dodging the blogs and tabloids, you can find a good news name -- the BBC -- on the first page. It will suggest that if there's a story here, it's going to need to go a long way beyond the events of September 2002, when the missing-osity of the flag was first reported.

At this point, the rim rat is justified in advising the wire desk that there isn't a story. But other departments have an investment in this thing too; it's taken some design and selection time. So keep on looking for evidence:

7) Somebody's blowing smoke. If there's a time the couple "came forward," it was in 2002 (March, April or September; you can take your pick, depending in part on your view of human nature). Is there something we aren't being told about the lawsuit -- filed in March 2004, as the Daily News reported under the classic tab hed "Sue city in 9/11 flag flap"?
8) "Calls were not immediately returned ..." is OK for a story that broke half an hour before deadline. On a day-old story from out of town, it's a dead giveaway that something is amiss. If the originating paper didn't want to at least mention what city officials had told the AP or the NYT at the time (one can see, perhaps, why the anonymous fire official's March 2004 comment to the News -- "They paid $10 for a flag, and now they want a half-million?" -- was omitted), there's always that staff-written piece from September 2002. I mean, it'd even let you say "city officials told The Record."
9) Irrelevant horn-tooting, but you have all the evidence you need by now anyway.

I was going to say something like "this isn't really such a bad story," but it really is such a bad story. It pretends to be something it isn't. It leaves a bunch of two- and three-year-old questions unanswered. It makes the paper look like it'll trade damn near anything for a handful of magic beans. And it takes up space that could be spent on real news.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The paper for which I'm interning had the flag piece on its front page today. My "weekend" is yesterday and today, though, so I don't know how the call was made.

(If the purpose was to garner interest, though, I must admit that it was the first thing I read when I bought the paper...)

I won't say anything more, as I'm just the lowly intern!

6:47 PM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

Robbie, if you have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, you are for sure in the copydesk club -- not a "lowly" anything. Drop us a note back here sometime about life in the Triad.

I would be interested in knowing if there's any comment on that piece around the office. It was one of the first things I looked at too, and it seemed to fit a pattern worth commenting about ....

10:22 PM, June 15, 2005  

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