Saturday, May 15, 2010

Today In NYT Laziness: For Most-Emailed Story On Cell Phones, Jenna Wortham Led With Example Of Cell-Phone Industry Publicist.

Jenna Wortham reported yesterday morning on the fact that more people are using their cell phones for data transmission than for conversation -- and led with the example of 40-year-old Liza Colburn, a "marketing consultant" in Canton, Massachusetts.

The story, "Cellphones Now Used More for Data Than for Calls," was widely tweeted, and today remains on the list of the NYT's most-emailed stories for the second day in a row.

But no mention is made of this seemingly relevant credential: Colburn is, in fact, a public-relations executive who works for the cell phone industry -- and specifically, has recently represented a company that makes cell-phone software for data transmission.

In Wortham's story, Colburn is portrayed as a typical American mom who uses her iPhone "constantly" for data transmission. She even rates a photograph, showing her lounging on the family couch with her cell phone, and her 12-year-old daughter nearby.

But she's not that typical, given her close ties to the wireless industry. And the vague title that Wortham gives her -- "marketing consultant" -- isn't even accurate.

Until recently, Colburn worked at a firm called EmergePR, and now has her own public relations firm, called LCPR, short for Liza Colburn Public Relations. She can call herself whatever she wants, but that makes her a publicist.

At Emerge, where she worked until earlier this year, Colburn handled media relations for a company called Red Bend Software, which manages data applications on cell phones -- which is precisely the focus of Wortham's story yesterday.

In fact, here's a link to a recent press release from Colburn, reporting that Red Bend's reach now extended to 680 million mobile devices. The release coincided with this year's CTIA wireless convention. What's CTIA? It's the wireless industry trade association that Wortham cites as the primary source for her story's thesis!

We've observed multitudes of these corner-cutting "anecdotes" in the NYT, and sometimes we don't even bother to report them. But this one struck us as a flagrant example of the laziness that seems to befall some NYT reporters when it comes to covering trends -- and significant because of the impact of the story.

Wortham ought to have reached out for a lead anecdote beyond the world of industry publicists, whose interests are directly served by her story. In this case, a publicist for a company that makes wireless software has a direct interest in a NYT article that reports on increased use of cell phones for data transmission.

Public-relations professionals are a necessary part of journalism, but they don't belong as anecdotal ledes for stories that promote their businesses.

Beyond that, reporters shouldn't camouflage the biases of their sources by calling them things like "marketing consultant," which may be technically accurate, but coyly distracts from the truth.


Anonymous said...

Not that this short cut of reporting is ever justified, but I suspect that lazy reporting and questionable anecdotes/sources have long plagued newspaper articles. The change is the ease in which fact-checkers and media critics can check on these matters and call a reporter/paper to account. Never underestimate the embarrassment factor to a reporter, especially one at the NY Times.

Anonymous said...

Damn. Good catch!

lesdmd said...

Beyond lazy reporting. An embarrassment to the Times, a disservice to the public, and sheer chutzpah on the part of the reporter. May we hope for some disciplinary action? Probably not. Good work nytpicker.

Anonymous said...

How common is it for journalists to tweek a press release and call it reporting?

Why not be open and profile a publicist? Or at least include a counterargument from a professional about the social burden of raising scatterbrains with ADD, ADHD, especially if you're gonna display bambi as if her behavior is just matter of fact and inconsequential. How many instances of poor performance does it take to terminate a substandard reporter?

Fred said...

This is disgusting. To call it lazy reporting is too kind. At the newspaper I used to work for (in a different century) this kind of thing would have got you fired.

Anonymous said...

her story subject's been done to death too (by a number of papers across the country, the most notable perhaps being the journal in late february).

Roberto said...

Nicely reported, and yes, "multitudes" is the right word to describe this sort of incident.

As with so much of what nytpicker reports, though this sort of thing may be common throughout the industry, we hold the Times to a higher standard, in part because of the high standards it has established for itself over the decades, and in part because the Times itself swaggers through the media landscape hinting (and sometimes saying outright) it is unanswerable to anyone but itself. [And even then, the Public Editor doesn't seem to get much respect.]

With the news that the Times will erect a paywall in January, however, I got to wondering how much of the Times is essential (though I have no problem paying for news, and do). We now live in a world of multiple media inputs, and for most people "news" is no longer a package, printed on paper and delivered early in the morning, but discrete stories, collected from a wide range of sources, including in my case The Economist, the Guardian, the NY Times, the LA Times, Slate, and more. I subscribe to a superb (and free) e-newsletter called The Browser, which sources stories (I think) via reader recommendations (which are then curated, I think) and has broadened my list of media inputs enormously.

Except for print subscribers, how many people read the NY Times cover to cover anymore? And specifically, what media outlets are "the best" for business news, global politics, sports, domestic news and politics, arts, etc.? If you're a media owner, and you're not "best in class" (and you don't have a political slant, e.g. Fox News, that puts you in the always-more-lucrative-than-the-news entertainment business), in any one category, what's your future?

Oh, and a final note: at this writing, this nytpicker post had attracted half a dozen comments, all of which are positive. Some sort of record, I'm sure!