David Griner

David Griner is a contributing editor for Adweek.com and VP/Director of Digital Content for Alabama-based marketing agency Luckie & Company. He previously served as city editor for a community newspaper in Northern California and as a reporter and political columnist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He can be reached by email or on Twitter at @Griner.


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Sports journalism faces moment of truth in week of Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o hoax

Almost exactly a year ago, “This American Life” did what it did best: ran a story that tugged at the heartstrings and enraptured its audience. The piece, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” so perfectly suited TAL’s storytelling style, none of the talented journalists on staff took enough time to wonder if it might in fact be a lie.

And of course it was a lie. Mike Daisey did not uncover underage or disfigured workers in China, a fact that should have become obvious under proper scrutiny. At the time, it seemed like too good a story to let fact-checking get in the way. “This American Life” would deeply regret that decision.

This week, the entire field of sports journalism is facing a similar moment of self-reflection after learning that several reputable journalists unwittingly helped spread the tragic — and completely false — story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend.

Deadspin’s jaw-dropping deconstruction of the Lennay Kekua hoax on Wednesday called out a litany of top-tier news outlets for spreading the story of a grieving Heisman candidate and his beautiful girlfriend lost to leukemia. Mentioned by name in the piece were Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Los Angeles Times, The South Bend Tribune, “CBS This Morning,” The New York Post and Fox Sports. There were, of course, many others who carried stories about Te’o and Kekua, turning the fiction into a widely accepted reality.

It was a painful and embarrassing day for the mainstream sports media, doubly disheartened by the fact they were disrobed by — shame of shames! — a blog. It also broke the same week that Lance Armstrong owned up to a career full of infractions, which some observers felt were tacitly suppressed by U.S. sports journalists who were overly dubious of doping allegations against a beloved national hero.

It’s a gut-check moment for sports reporters, and if they’re wise, they’ll use this opportunity to do three things “This American Life” did when it ended up in a similar situation last year.

Full transparency and accountability

When “This American Life” host Ira Glass learned that one of his own public radio colleagues, Marketplace’s China correspondent Rob Schmitz, had serious concerns about “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Glass quickly green-lit a follow-up investigative piece helmed by Schmitz himself.

On March 16, 2012, “This American Life” aired an episode called “Retraction,” in which the staff spent the better part of an hour picking apart their own failed fact-checking and (albeit too late) cornering Daisey into kinda, sorta admitting that yeah, maybe he made a lot of that stuff up. It was a painful hour of radio for any journalist to hear, but it was a far more painful hour for the “This American Life” crew to record.

“I and my co-workers here at ‘This American Life’, we are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day,” Glass told listeners. “So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.”

Each news outlet that ran the Te’o-Kekua story owes it to its readers to give a similar full accounting of why it did not appropriately check the story’s veracity. So far, the process is off to a slow start.

Initial coverage of Deadspin’s exposé by the news outlets involved has primarily highlighted Notre Dame’s version of events: that Te’o was the blameless victim of an online scam. If you have faith in Deadpsin’s coverage, then this explanation is riddled with holes that journalists should be prodding mercilessly. If Te’o never met his cyber-girlfriend, why did the South Bend Tribune describe them meeting after a 2009 game in Palo Alto? Why did Te’o’s dad tell the same newspaper that Te’o and Kekua would meet in Hawaii to spend time together?

The first test of transparency for these news outlets will be the level of skepticism they bring to bear on the emerging narrative favored by Te’o and Notre Dame. To its credit, The South Bend Tribune is obviously working quickly and dilligently to put the pieces together and find out why they were fed information from Teo’s father that simply couldn’t have been true.

Improved process

When I was a regional news reporter for an Indiana daily, I once had to interview a small-town editor in our coverage area after his newspaper helped raise money to send a young cancer-stricken girl to Disney World. During her trip, a relative revealed to the paper that the cancer was likely an elaborate hoax by the girl’s mother. Sure enough, the story quickly unraveled, and the mother was soon in police custody.

“I don’t want to live in a world where I have to ask a mother to prove that her daughter has cancer,” the editor told me. But he then proceeded to list all the procedural safeguards he had put in place in the newsroom to keep something similar from happening again. He didn’t want to live in that world, but he knew he had to.

 

Harpo Studios Inc. provided the Associated Press with this photo of cyclist Lance Armstrong with Oprah Winfrey during the taping of their interview in Austin, Texas. The two-part episode of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” will air nationally Thursday and Friday, Jan. 17-18, 2013. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc., George Burns)

“This American Life” also moved fact-checking to the fore, even when it meant asking difficult questions of people in sensitive situations. A TAL piece in June 2012 about comedian Jackie Clarke’s highly dysfunctional family, for example, ended with Ira Glass detailing all the ways his staff had tried to confirm her story with her estranged relatives. It was an awkward coda, breaking the storytelling structure by closing with footnotes and minutia, but it was one of the clearest signs that the program had learned to put accuracy above narrative.

Sports journalists are clearly dealing with a similar realization. ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski seemed half-contrite, half-naïve when he explained to “SportsCenter” why he ran with the Te’o-Kekua story despite a lack of factual evidence to back it up:

Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case.

He later says that he asked for photos of Kekua and contact info from her family, but backed off when Te’o didn’t want to supply them. When a story requires no factual support despite a lack of what should be obvious evidence, it’s clear that there is little or no process in place for ensuring accuracy.

Earnest self-reflection

When “This American Life” ran its retraction and apology, Glass sounded like a man who had been sucker-punched by his own child. He was clearly exhausted from a week not only of intensive reporting but also intensive reflection. He had revisited the moments that led to his error in judgment, and he had judged himself guilty.

“We should have killed the story right there and then,” Glass admitted. “And to do anything else was a screw-up.”

It’s never easy to admit you screwed up. It’s far easier to find excuses, like being lied to or misdirected by an otherwise reliable source. The easy way out for news outlets who wrote about Te’o and Kekua would be to write about Notre Dame’s version of events and move on. But that would leave too many questions unaddressed – questions more important than who was behind Te’o’s fictional girlfriend.

Sports journalism has always inhabited a murky ethical zone that can make hard-news reporters uneasy. By nature of their jobs, sports reporters typically have a closer relationship with the players, coaches, venues and institutions they cover compared to their peers on the City Hall or crime beats. Their rules on everything from free food to fraternizing with sources are often more liberal than those for news reporters.

But this relaxed approach to sports coverage — which certainly isn’t universal — is only part of the problem. More problematic these days is the fact that sports writers and producers are always on the hunt for a narrative, something that can elevate games above boring statistics and leaderboard shuffling.

All journalists love telling a good story, but sports coverage and presentation have become reliant on it. A game can’t just be a series of pre-prepared tactics and random interventions of chance. These days, it needs to be a clash of iconic personalities, the heroes of our modern mythology playing out their epic storylines one installment at a time.

In the case of Manti Te’o, the quest for a storyline appears to have clouded the judgment of otherwise sensible journalists. And Notre Dame helped fuel the story, likely hoping that it would make Te’o a more compelling case for a Heisman.

While Te’o so far denies knowing his girlfriend was fake, it seems from Deadspin’s coverage that he (or at least his father) continued to spool out more details of his faux relationship as it became clear how much positive press it was generating for him and his team. In other words, each piece of the sports machine benefited from the narrative, and in the end each suffered for it.

It is my hope that this week – the week of Armstrong and Te’o – sports journalists across the country will have vigorous debates among themselves and their colleagues about how they should approach their work. That process begins by admitting there is a problem — several, in fact. Read more

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How KKK rally image found new life 20 years after it was published

Buried on Page B1, alongside the hum-drum headline “KKK march calm,” a powerful image of race relations in the southern United States was nearly lost. In fact, it almost wasn’t published at all.

And in the 20 years since, this emotionally complex photograph of a Klan-robed toddler playfully touching the riot shield of a bemused African-American state trooper has gone uncelebrated and largely unknown.

Photo by Todd Robertson, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Now, thanks to a few twists of fate, the photo has been granted a second life through social media, where each viewer seems to read something different into the image. Is it disturbing? Hopeful? Humorous? Touching? Heartbreaking?

Many who have shared the photo online admit they know little about its origins, which is understandable. Aside from a few basic details, such as the photographer’s name and a rough guess on the year, the full story behind this photo has never appeared online until today.

After first seeing the photo shared on Facebook a month ago, I decided to track down the photographer, who now describes himself as “a 45-year-old cabinet designer who has nothing to do with pictures.” In a recent phone interview, Todd Robertson shared the full story, which proved even more interesting than I’d imagined.

Of course, it all begins on the day the image was captured: Sept. 5, 1992.

The Ku Klux Klan was holding a rally in the northeast Georgia community of Gainesville, where the white supremacist group hoped to breathe some life into its flagging revival campaign of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Assigned as a backup photographer for the local daily, The Gainesville Times, was Robertson, a 1991 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism. He had a few recurring gigs, including shooting high school football for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but a full-time photojournalism job had proved elusive.

At the Klan rally, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of action for Robertson to record. According to news reports from the day, there were 66 KKK representatives, encircled by three times as many law enforcement personnel. The downtown square was otherwise empty, with about 100 observers at the fringe, mostly there to demonstrate against the Klan.

The white supremacists were out-of-towners with no real local support in Gainesville. “Many people who came to these Klan events were not from here,” recalls Gainesville Times new media editor Michael Beard in an email to me about the photo’s history. “I’ve lived here all my life and can only recall seeing someone in a Klan outfit one single time, standing alone at an intersection trying to hand out papers.”

While reporters and the staff photographer focused on the speakers at the rally and watched for potential signs of conflict, Robertson chose to follow a mother and her two young boys, dressed in white robes and the KKK’s iconic pointy hats.

One of the boys approached a black state trooper, who was holding his riot shield on the ground. Seeing his reflection, the boy reached for the shield, and Robertson snapped the photo. Almost immediately, the mother swooped in and took away the toddler, whom she identified to Robertson as “Josh.” The moment was fleeting, and almost no one noticed it, but Robertson had captured it on film.

And a roll of film seemed to be where it was destined to stay. Back at the newspaper office, Robertson was told his photos weren’t worth developing because the staff photographer had come back with plenty of good images from the rally. A photograph of a Klan leader was selected to be the primary shot for the Local section cover.

On his own initiative, Robertson took his film to a local one-hour photo developer and brought a stack of 4×6 prints back to the newspaper office. He was showing the photo of the young boy and the trooper to a few reporters when the managing editor walked by.

“He grabbed it up, walked directly to the photo guy and said, ‘This picture’s running in the paper,’” Robertson says. “That staff photographer and I are still friends, but we weren’t that day.”

While it only appeared in black-and-white on Page B1 of a small community newspaper, the photo also hit the Associated Press wire, where it sparked some unexpected attention.

Robertson was soon contacted by producers for “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” which wanted to feature the young boy and his mother. As with many such requests since then, Robertson wasn’t able to provide any contact information for the family, which he guessed lived in or around Winder, Ga., because of their affiliation with the Klan’s Winder Knights sect.

It’s hard to know where else the photograph ran in those initial days, though Robertson heard of it appearing in several European tabloids.

Gainesville Times editors submitted the shot for a state Associated Press award, which it won in the Feature Photo category. But that, Robertson says, was the photo’s only official recognition.

By all logic, the photo’s legacy should have ended there. The newspaper wasn’t yet posting content to the Internet, so the photo would only live on microfilm. (As recently as December 2012, the newspaper’s editors said they were unsure where to find the original article because the exact date of the rally had been forgotten. Luckily, the Hall County Library was able to help me dig up the scan of the photo’s original appearance in print.)

As for Robertson, he soon decided to give up his dream of being a professional photographer and join his father’s local cabinetry business, Area Decor, where he is now a project manager. He got married, had twins, kept himself plenty busy. When the family travels, he refuses to take along any camera larger than a point-and-shoot, to keep himself from “going overboard and crawling around on the ground trying to get a shot.”

But fate still had plans for Robertson’s photography. In 1999, seven years after the Klan rally photograph was captured, the Southern Poverty Law Center decided to feature it prominently in a new pamphlet called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”

Even those involved with the original publication don’t remember why or how they dug up Robertson’s photo, but once it was unearthed from the anti-hate organization’s extensive archive of news clippings, everyone knew it was a perfect fit for the publication, where it appears in full color across the booklet’s second page.

“I don’t know who found it or where it came up,” says Penny Weaver, longtime public affairs coordinator for the Alabama-based SPLC, in a phone interview for this story. “But that’s how it’s gotten wide distribution, because we have given away lots and lots of that handbook over the years.”

The nonprofit licensed the photo with Robertson for publication, and he provided them an uncropped color version, which is now prominently displayed in the group’s office. As the pamphlet circulated through multiple printings over the years, Weaver says her group was often contacted by admirers of the photo who wanted to order a poster version or learn more about it. She would refer all inquiries to Robertson, who says he responded to some but not all of the requests.

As online photo sharing exploded in 2011, the photograph appeared (with no caption other than “Awwwww”) on a popular photo blog called The Meta Picture. Right away, commenters began to have a debate that’s now a standard byproduct of the image: Is it cute, sad or disturbing?

“Not *awww*, this kid is the next white supremacist generation,” notes the first commenter.

“You’re completely missing the point,” responds another. “This kid has no idea how to hate yet. It’s cute. If he becomes ‘the next white supremacist generation’ it won’t be his fault.”

Other bloggers shared the photo and added what little context they could find. Robertson noticed the spike in activity and, in July 2012, even posted his first-ever statement about the photograph as a comment on the blog 22 Words. “I will never be able to live without someone finding this picture,” Robertson wrote, then gave a few reflections on the events of that day.

The slow burn of the photo’s digital rebirth continues to flare up in seemingly random places. On Dec. 10, 2012, the image was shared on Facebook by a gay-rights page called “Have a Gay Day.” The image sparked 1,700 likes and 850 shares in one day.

“I have stared at this picture and wondered what must have been going through that Trooper’s mind,” wrote the gay-rights advocate who posted it to Facebook. “Before the Trooper is an innocent child who is being taught to hate him because of the color of his skin. The child doesn’t understand what he is being taught, and at this point he doesn’t seem to care.”

This comment captures what makes Robertson’s photo so compelling. It’s a fleeting moment, but one that you could spend hours reflecting on, finding different nuances and interpretations. It becomes a sort of Rorschach test for each commenter’s worldview. It might leave you hopeful that hate isn’t a trait we’re born with. Or it might make you depressed about the fact that many children are destined to be corrupted and psychologically misshapen.

Ball State University even built a one-hour lesson plan around the photograph for high school educators as part of the college’s “Learning from a Legacy of Hate” teacher toolkit. Called the “Kiddie Klan Exercise,” it includes questions such as “What do you think is going on in the officer’s head at this moment? What are his facial expressions saying?” and “Would you feel differently about this picture if the officer that ‘Josh’ is interacting with was not African-American?”

“The whole key to that picture is the expression on that trooper’s face,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Penny Weaver. “I think that expression is … what’s the word to describe it? It’s like a sort of sadness.”

Robertson himself interprets the trooper’s reaction as a mix of “disgust and sorrow.”

“They felt sorry for the kid,” he says. “You could tell that kid did not know the difference between that day and Halloween.”

The photo’s online revival has had a complicated effect on Robertson, who thought he had moved past his photojournalism life many years ago. He enjoys seeing the comments and wishes he could help the many viewers who want to know what ever happened to “Josh.” But at the same time, it can feel strange reflecting back on one moment two decades ago.

“I just really don’t even know what to say about it. It seems like it was a whole world ago. It’s almost like another life that I lived 20 years ago.

“I was looking in the right direction, I guess.”

Update: Photographer, trooper from Klan rally image meet

David Griner is a contributing editor for Adweek.com and VP/Director of Digital Content for Alabama-based marketing agency Luckie & Company. He previously served as city editor for a community newspaper in Northern California and as a reporter and political columnist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He can be reached by email or on Twitter at @Griner. Read more

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