Yesterday brought the stunning news that Intercept staffer Juan Thompson had “fabricated several quotes in his stories and created fake email accounts that he used to impersonate people,” according to Intercept Editor in Chief Betsy Reed in a remarkably forthcoming “note to readers.” Via corrections and a retraction, the Intercept cleaned up the mess and declared, “We apologize to the subjects of the stories; to the people who were falsely quoted; and to you, our readers. We are contacting news outlets that picked up the corrected stories to alert them to the problems.”
The problems are particularly acute in the case of this Thompson piece: “Dylann Roof’s cousin claims love interest chose black man over him.” The “scoop” landed in a churning news environment just one day after Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine black churchgoers in an historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. And Thompson appeared to have added a great deal to the alleged killer’s background:
Scott Roof, who identified himself as Dylann Roof’s cousin, told me over the telephone that “Dylann was normal until he started listening to that white power music stuff.” He also claimed that “he kind of went over the edge when a girl he liked starting dating a black guy two years back.”
This scenario recalls a manifesto written by Elliot Rodger, who on May 23, 2014 gunned down six people in Isla Vista, California: “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?”
“Dylann liked her,” Scott Roof said. “The black guy got her. He changed. I don’t know if we would be here if not …” Roof then abruptly hung up the phone.
Retracted! The Intercept’s editor’s note clarifies, “After speaking with two members of Dylann Roof’s family, The Intercept can no longer stand by the premise of this story. Both individuals said that they do not know of a cousin named Scott Roof.”
We asked Reed which organizations picked up on the report. She responded: the New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Magazine, Toronto Sun, Indy (UK), Daily Mail (UK), Mirror (UK), Alternet, The Root, Radar Online, Latin Post and CentricTV.
Editor’s notes have ensued. The Daily News, for example, writes this: “Editor’s Note: This story was retracted by The Intercept on Feb. 2, 2016 after they spoke to two family members who said they were not aware of the relative, Scott Roof.” New York Magazine stuck a correction at the foot of a Dylann Roof biographical roundup piece:
Correction: A previous version of this story noted that a man claiming to be Roof’s cousin said that he “kind of went over the edge when a girl he liked starting dating a black guy two years back.” The Intercept has retracted that story, which reflected a “pattern of misattributed quotes” in stories written by former staff reporter Juan Thompson.
The Root slapped this explanation on its piece: “Editor’s note: After speaking with two members of Dylann Roof’s family, The Intercept, the outlet from which this piece attributed its information, can no longer stand by the premise of this story. Read The Intercept’s full retraction statement here.”
Other outlets have failed to heed the example of transparency set by The Intercept, and simply deleted their acts of reckless aggregation. There’s no story at the following Alternet URL, for example: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/dylann-roofs-cousin-being-spurned-girl-black-guy-sent-roof-over-edge. The Mirror and Daily Mail also seem to have disappeared their versions.
The New York Post on June picked up the story of Roof’s alleged cousin: “Meanwhile, The Intercept Web site quoted a man who claims to be Scott Roof, the gunman’s cousin, saying Dylann “went over the edge when a girl he liked started dating a black guy two years back.” The Erik Wemple Blog can find no correction or editor’s note appended to that story.
Missing from the list of aggregators are big mainstream media outlets. There’s no New York Times or Washington Post or major broadcast outlets on The Intercept’s list of hook-line-and-sinker organizations. Looking back on the Scott Roof story, there are plenty of omissions to inform skepticism: There’s no age given for Scott Roof, no city of residence, no occupation and no description of how well he knew his cousin. As a spokesperson for the New York Times tells the Erik Wemple Blog, the paper couldn’t confirm the news at the time and “so did not run it.” Sounds plausible.
In addition to the obvious lessons about editing, the Thompson story yields some notions about the psychology of aggregation. Read the editor’s notes above from organizations that followed up The Intercept’s work: They don’t apologize for having failed to vet the story and instead just drop the blame on the Intercept. Contrast that approach with the blame accepted by Reed in her editor’s note: “The Intercept deeply regrets this situation. Ultimately, I am accountable for everything we publish. The best way we can see to maintain the trust of readers is to acknowledge and correct these mistakes, and to focus on producing journalism we are proud of.”