Journalist Courtney Rubin, working as a freelancer for the New York Times, alighted on Ithaca, N.Y., with a great story. College bars were struggling, she wrote, because of the transformed social habits of students these days.
These days text messaging, Facebook and Foursquare make it possible to see if a bar is worth the trip (translation: who is there) without leaving the dorm. Meanwhile, location-based mobile apps like Grindr, which point to the nearest available candidates looking for sex or not-quite-sex, are helping dethrone college bars from their place as meat markets.
To add some color to the story, Rubin planted herself at Level B, a sloshy hangout for Cornell University students. The lede of the piece quotes two people — 21-year-old alleged Cornell students Michelle Guida and Vanessa Gilen — talking about the social dynamics of drinking.
It all sounded good until IvyGate reported that there’s no Michelle Guida or Vanessa Gilen in the Cornell student directory. Same disconnect applied to some other names in the story, forcing the New York Times into an editor’s-note situation:
An article on Thursday described the effect of social media use on the bar scene in several college towns, including the area around Cornell. After the article was published, questions were raised by the blog IvyGate about the identities of six Cornell students quoted in the article or shown in an accompanying photo.
None of the names provided by those students to a reporter and photographer for The Times — Michelle Guida, Vanessa Gilen, Tracy O’Hara, John Montana, David Lieberman and Ben Johnson — match listings in the Cornell student directory, and The Times has not subsequently been able to contact anyone by those names. The Times should have worked to verify the students’ identities independently before quoting or picturing them for the article.
Not too hard to figure out what happened here.
When asked for comment on the situation, Stuart Emmrich, the paper’s Styles editor, passed along this statement:
Courtney Rubin, who has written several pieces for Styles in the past year, has proven herself to be a thorough and reliable reporter, and nothing about the unfortunate incident at Cornell changes that fact. Moreover, as the editor, I probably should have realized that, in a state where the drinking age is 21, there was a likelihood that some people hanging out in a college bar might be underage and prone to lying about it. We pressed Courtney to make sure she only quoted people who were legally there — and, in fact, several people in the bar admitted as much to her, and thus were not included in the article. It never occurred to me that some patrons would not only let their fake names be published, but would also do so while having their pictures taken. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
And so the lessons here:
1) As News of the Weird has been teaching us for years, people who seek to scam others are quite often dumb.
2) Journalists do well to double as paranoiacs. Never trust anyone, no matter how much truth serum they’ve drunk out of an oversize cocktail glass.
3) Isn’t it glorious when editors stand up and take some blame?