Morning MediaWire: How The Intercept got the Rob Porter story

February 13, 2018
Category: Newsletters

News researchers have been behind some of the biggest stories in the past few months, including unearthing the domestic abuse accusations against a now-resigned White House senior staffer and debunking a attempt to trick The Washington Post on the Judge Roy Moore story.  We talk with Lynn Dombek, a longtime research leader at The Associated Press and TIME and now research director of First Look Media, the umbrella group that includes The Intercept.

Here’s an excerpt; the full interview is here.

Lynn, could you describe the role researchers played in The Intercept’s key story on Rob Porter? I believe two of the four members of that article team were researchers, and a third was a fact-checker-turned-reporter.

The role they played? There would have been no story without them! An editor reached out to our investigative researcher, Sheelagh McNeill, saying he’d gotten a tip that a Facebook post existed with allegations of spousal abuse against a named White House official. That was it. Could she help?

Sheelagh and Margot Williams, our semi-retired research editor for investigations, then started the drill: identify, connect, verify. They went back and forth with each other on our internal Signal chat channel. They used an arsenal of tools, from open web searches to social media to public records, identifying key people, connecting them to other people, and verifying that what they found was accurate. …

After unearthing the allegations of abuse (it was an online journal, not Facebook) identifying the key players (there were two wives, not one), and pulling relevant, supporting documents, they worked iteratively with reporters to move the story forward.

One of those reporters was Alleen Brown, our former research editor for fact checking. She moved into a reporting position over the summer, and so was ideally suited to absorb the information Sheelagh and Margot had generated. Like the rest of our team, Alleen helped build a framework to support our mantra of evidence-based journalism, and is a particularly fierce and exacting proponent of it. She and D.C. editor Ryan Grim then worked doggedly to report out the story.

Catch the rest of our interview here, but first, catch up with the latest news and tips for better journalism:

Quick hits

CNN TO LAY OFF DOZENS: The layoffs in CNN’s 600-member digital unit follow an expansion of nearly 200 people in the past 18 months, The Wrap reports. “Not every new project has paid off,” a CNN spokesperson was quoted as saying about the firings, to be announced later this week. CNN, like BuzzFeed and Vice, fell short of financial projections despite a “Trump bump” and $370 million in revenue.

SUPER-SHORT ATTENTION SPAN: Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” was so yesterday. Now Giphy Studios is focusing on 6-second video artists. Most GIFs are pulled from movies, television shows and other media events, but Giphy Studios is betting original GIF “content” can attract old-line advertisers like H&R Block, HP and Absolut Vodka, reports the NYT’s Katherine Rosman.

SUPER-LONG ATTENTION SPAN: William James once said your life experience is what you choose to pay attention to. Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants,” says you have to focus particularly hard to make your way past businesses that have become insidious in their attempts to distract you. A worthwhile interview with Vox’s Sean Illing.

THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET: Unilever has become the latest company to say it would pull ads on social sites like Facebook and YouTube if they didn’t do more to fight dis- and mis-information, reports the WSJ’s Suzanne Vranica. That ultimatum followed a similar call last year by Procter & Gamble. Facebook’s Campbell Brown, at the Recode conference, said: “If someone feels that being on Facebook is not good for your business, you shouldn’t be on Facebook.” Facebook already has hired 7,500 content moderators, reports Alexis Madrigal, in his peek inside the company’s efforts for The Atlantic. Also, Facebook has lost 2.8 million U.S. users under 25 last year, Recode reports.

WHILE WE’RE ON THE TOPIC: The firing of two of Facebook’s “Trending Topics’’ editors in early 2016 kicked off the two most tumultuous years for the tech giant. WIRED goes deep on Facebook’s recent history, with 51 interviews of current and former employees. “Most people told the same basic tale: of a company, and a CEO, whose techno-optimism has been crushed as they’ve learned the myriad ways their platform can be used for ill,” Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein write. One employee, they write, compared Mark Zuckerberg to the character of Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men,” “the farmworker with no understanding of his own strength.”

THE BEST DEFENSE: BuzzFeed has hired a senior FBI cyber-official to lead its effort to verify the “dossier” on President Donald Trump compiled by a former British intelligence agent, FP’s Jana Winter reports. The BuzzFeed court case, prompted by a lawsuit by a Russian technology executive, could represent the first public airing of an investigation into the veracity of some of the dossier’s claims. The former official, Anthony Ferrante, was in charge of coordinating the U.S. government response to Russian attempts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

IMPROVING REPORTING ON SEXUAL ABUSE: How do instructors teach future journalists to get it right on the many varieties of stories of abuse? Candi Carter Olson and Tracy Everbach detail several steps for Media Shift, including: 1) Understanding rape culture; 2) Understand how to report with context; 3) Use empowering terms and language in the reporting. Learn more in a chat at 1 p.m. Wednesday (Eastern time) using the #EdShift hashtag on Twitter.

JOURNALISM PROF TAKES LEAVE AFTER COMPLAINTS: The director of a nationally recognized student journalism project is taking a leave of absence after 10 former students and employees accused him of harassment, inappropriate physical contact, and bullying. Northwestern University, which found a previous accusation unsubstantiated, is investigating complaints against Alec Klein in a public letter to the dean of its Medill School of Journalism. The letter charges Klein made sexually graphic remarks at work, tried to kiss a prospective employee before hiring her, asked a female employee to come to his hotel room for drinks on a business trip, and gave unwanted neck massages to a female employee while she was trying to work, reports Katherine Mangan of the Chronicle for Higher Education.

THE SHIELD: It’s great that members of Congress are supporting a federal law against assaults on journalists, but CJR’s Jonathan Peters argues that far more important is a “shield” law to protect journalists who refuse to divulge their sources. Says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida: “The far more worrisome concern is the pursuit of leakers and sources, directly by pressuring journalists and indirectly by obtaining data from digital intermediaries who might not adequately protect it.”

New on

  • Poynter has acquired the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact. The staff in St. Petersburg, Florida, has moved into Poynter's building in order to earn a not-for-profit designation and bolster work already being done by the International Fact-Checking Network (which was not involved in the ideation or execution of the deal).
  • In this week's Try This! newsletter, Ren LaForme takes a look at a new effort to get you to put your phone down
  • SciLine, a resource for journalists who need help writing science stories, is hitting the road to promote its work.