Great moments in Wisconsin journalism (not)

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reports on the flagship publication of my former employer (other than Marketplace Magazine, R.I.P.):

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pulled a sneaky maneuver this summer. In mid-July it published a column on race relations by columnist James E. Causey containing the incorrect claim that the unemployment rate for white men in 1954 was zilch. It appeared that this fanciful statistic had been sourced from a website named YourBlackWorld.net.

Instead of fixing the column and adding a correction, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel disappeared the entire thing. It never showed up in print, and the column’s link dead-ended. Then, after this blog inquired about the situation, it resurfaced the piece, this time with a correction.

More corrective action appears to be descending on the work of Causey, who wrote a compelling piece this past weekend about the violent protests around his Milwaukee neighborhood after a fatal police shooting of an armed man (he even scored a nice writeup on Poynter.org). In April, for instance, Causey wrote a piece about Gov. Rick Snyder’s handling of the Flint water crisis: “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should be charged.” A cached version of the column (captured on Aug. 14) turns up this explanation of the crisis:

It started in April 2014, when the state decided to temporarily switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-savings measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. That would have been fine, but the Flint River had a reputation of being nasty. Right after the switch, residents complained that the water was brown and it smelled funny. Residents started reporting hair loss, rashes and illness in 2014.

Compare that phrasing to a CNN  piece dated Jan. 19, 2016, about three months before Causey’s column:

In April 2014 the state decided to temporarily switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. The river had a reputation for nastiness, and after the switch, residents complained their water looked, smelled and tasted funny.
Virginia Tech researchers found the water was highly corrosive, and the city switched back to the Lake Huron water supply in October.

In recent days, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has addressed this matter, among other deficiencies in Causey’s Flint story. An italicized passage at the top of the piece reads, “Correction: An earlier version of this column inaccurately attributed information about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and inadequately attributed other information. The column also inaccurately described a quotation by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who said it would not be unfair to compare the crisis to Hurricane Katrina.” No longer does the story contain the passage that mimics CNN’s formulation. Instead, it now reads this way:

The problems began after the state switched Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. Almost immediately, residents complained of brown water and a foul odor. Some said they broke out in rashes and lost their hair, CNN reported.

That’s an improvement. Two other Causey columns also contain headlining corrections, one for poor sourcing and the other for poor attribution and crediting.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley how long the newspaper knew about the attribution problems and how he viewed them. He responded, “The explanations on the stories are the result of an internal review to set the record straight with readers — corrections that were addressed prior to any outside inquiry.”

The newspaper’s review may want to linger a bit on a Nov. 2015 column by Causey titled, “Diversity needed in the jury box.” It contains this description of a decision by a Kentucky judge Olu Stevens:

Stevens, who is black, dismissed the panel Oct. 14, because on the second day of jury selection, he was concerned that the pool of jurors that attorneys were to choose from had 37 white citizens and only three black citizens. Two of the three potential black jurors already had been eliminated.

Weeks before, Louisville’s WDRB.com wrote this:

In the recent case, on the second day of the drug trial on Oct. 14, Stevens said he was concerned that the panel of jurors attorneys were to choose a jury from included 37 white people and only three black citizens. And two of the three potential black jurors had already been eliminated.

This blog asked Stanley about that overlap; we are awaiting a response.

Inadequate attribution is one thing when the information is correct; it’s another when the information is bogus. As we reported earlier this week, Causey’s July column titled “Donald Trump’s right: We do have a race problem” contained these assertions about historic racial disparities: “In 1954, unemployment was zero for white men, and it was 4% for black men.” YourBlackWorld.net put the matter this way: “For white men in 1954, unemployment was zero. For African-American men in 1954, it was about 4 percent.” Both were wrong, but YourBlackWorld.net was wrong first.

After the unemployment gaffe, Causey’s column took a hiatus of several weeks. Stanley attributed that gap to a “special in-depth reporting project” that will stretch into next year.

 

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