How journalists made sure the truth spread as far as the lie in Elmo accusation coverage
An accusation is often more newsworthy than the recantation. So should a news organization make an effort to ensure the new information is given the same prominence as the original?
It’s a question that arose this week after the unnamed man who leveled underage sex allegations against Kevin Clash, the voice and puppeteer of Elmo on "Sesame Street," recanted his allegations. TMZ first broke news of the allegations, and it spread quickly.
The New York Times, for example, ran a story about the allegations and the fact that Sesame Workshop announced Clash was taking a leave of absence.
That story ran with a photo Tuesday on page B3 of the New York edition of the paper.
On Tuesday night, after the accuser recanted his allegation, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter raised the question of how media outlets would (and should) handle the new information:
Now: will every media outlet that wrote long stories about Elmo yesterday write equally long stories today?
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) November 13, 2012
Some of his followers, including a couple of journalists with The Hollywood Reporter and one with The Onion's A.V. Club, offered their view on the matter:
For the record, no the New York Post did not give equal front page treatment to the updated story. Here was its front page on Tuesday:
Wednesday's front page:
The Times story about the recantation was not as long as the original story, but that seems unimportant in the context of how diligent journalists there were about featuring news that Clash's accuser recanted.
I asked Times Associate Managing Editor for Standards Philip B. Corbett if the paper has a policy about giving due prominence to a recanted allegation, and how it goes about ensuring fair coverage.
"I think basic fairness dictates that a news organization shouldn’t play up an accusation and then bury a follow-up story indicating that the accusation wasn’t true – especially with an accusation as serious as this," he said in an email. "I’m not sure you can or should dictate that the follow-up has to be precisely the same length or in exactly the same spot, but certainly we would want the follow-up to reach a comparable audience to the original."
Corbett noted that the Times' follow-up story ran on Wednesday "at the top of B2 in print – if anything, a bit more prominent that the previous story, which was at the bottom of B3."
Both the original and the update appeared on the Times' Media Decoder blog in separate posts and as part of the Breakfast Menu both days.
Stelter said in an email that the update received more prominent placement online than the original report of the accusation.
"I was glad to see that our second story was much more prominently displayed on the home page than our first story," he said. "The first story about the allegations was briefly on the home page as a headline. The second story about the recantation was featured as a news story with a headline and a summary for five to six hours, then as a headline."
(Though some new outlets credited the Times with having the scoop on the recanted allegation, Stelter said they received an email from a law firm that "was sent to about two dozen reporters from TV, print and Web media outlets at 4:58 p.m.")
Stelter said that he pushed the updated story out on Twitter in five tweets/retweets, but didn't share the original piece.
Corbett also stressed how cautiously the paper dealt with the allegations in the first place:
Of course, an equally important question is whether and how to report the initial allegation. I think in this case we clearly had to, since Kevin Clash was taking a leave from his job and Sesame Workshop publicly announced that fact, and the reason for it. But note that in our original story, we took care right in the lead to say the accusation was “unsubstantiated,” and we reported that Sesame Workshop had conducted investigations and concluded that the allegation was false.
Obviously such a story is still damaging to an individual, however it’s presented. But it was important that we do whatever we could to signal to readers right from the start that there was skepticism about the accusation.
The Times was careful in its initial reporting and actively promoted the follow up piece, which can go a long way to helping ensure the public has the latest information about the story.
If I have one suggestion, and it's a small one, it's that the Times and others place a link to the updated report in the original post, so anyone happening upon the first story would also know about the update.