Getting it right

When, as a young man, I had my proverbial “cup of coffee” with the Associated Press in New York, I remember how the AP veterans around me stressed getting a news story right before publishing it, and how, they argued, the wire service’s competitor, UPI (United Press International), had it backwards, sacrificing accuracy for speed.

In its finest moments, of course, I was told, the AP would be both first and right, but the idea was never to skip the journalistic basics of fact checking, verification and skeptical editing in the headlong pursuit of a scoop.

I thought of that Associated Press philosophy after troubling questions surfaced recently about an explosive Boston Globe story on the safety of the troubled Big Dig highway project. It has become painfully clear that the Globe rushed the story into print, and while the overall thrust of its coverage–that Big Dig contractors may have given legitimate safety concerns short shrift–appears to be accurate, the credibility of the Globe‘s main source has been badly compromised, and with it, the story itself.

Questions of safety

The Big Dig’s construction quality and safety processes came under close scrutiny after a woman was killed July 10 when tunnel ceiling panels fell on her car; federal and state investigators began looking closely at the incident to see if any crimes were involved.

The Globe’s July 26 front page story claimed that a Big Dig safety officer, John J. Keaveney, had written a 1999 memo questioning the safety of the bolt-and-epoxy ceiling design in the Interstate 90 connector tunnel (the design which failed, dropping the concrete ceiling panels). Keaveney said that neither his superiors at Modern Continental Construction, a Big Dig contractor, nor representatives from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the overall manager of the project, had heeded his warning, instead reassuring him that the design had been tested and would work.

The Globe reported that the May 1999 memo from Keaveney to Robert Coutts, senior project manager for Modern Continental, had been “mailed to a Globe reporter without Keaveney’s knowledge” and that Keaveney, when contacted, had verified the memo.

The response from Modern Continental and the other parties involved? The Globe offered two short paragraphs:

Andrew Paven, a spokesman for Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, declined to comment last night.

Efforts to reach representatives of Modern Continental last night were unsuccessful. Coutts was on vacation and unavailable, a family member said last night.

The story received national attention; it suggested malfeasance at best, and criminal negligence at worst, in the way safety had been handled on the Big Dig. Keaveney was interviewed by investigators from the attorney general’s office and the FBI.

Questions of credibility

But then questions began to be raised about Keaveney’s account. In news stories that ran August 3, Modern Continental Construction said that it could not find the memo in question and that Robert Coutts did not remember receiving it from Keaveny. Further, the company identified what it said were internal inconsistencies in the memo, and concluded that the memo had been fabricated. The company also said that a handwriting analysis of the return address on the letter sent to the Globe suggested that it was Keaveney’s own handwriting on the envelope.

When confronted by the Globe, Keaveney admitted that he had indeed sent the letter, using the name of a Modern Continental employee. That admission prompted a front page note August 4th from Martin Baron, editor of the Globe, who explained why his newspaper had run the story without Modern Continental’s response (noting that Keaveney had been willing to go on the record, “his direct knowledge of the project and the memo,” and that he had a solid reputation in the local construction industry) but closed with this:

However, Keaveney acknowledged in an interview with the Globe last evening that he had not been truthful with the Globe about one very important element of this story. Last week, he told us he had not sent the Globe the memo. Last night, he acknowledged that he had sent the memo to the Globe and had included on the envelope the name and address of another individual as the sender. (That person subsequently told the Globe he was not the sender.)

Although Keaveney continued last night to insist on the memo’s authenticity, the admission that he misled the Globe about the mailing of the memo raises concerns about credibility.

The Globe will continue to report fully and forthrightly on this matter, bringing to our readers everything we learn.

The local tabloid newspaper, the Boston Herald, always eager to poke at its broadsheet competitor, focused extensive coverage on the problems with the Globe‘s story. The Herald interviewed local journalism professors who questioned why the Globe had not waited for a response from Modern Continental Construction before publishing the story, and the paper gleefully quoted from an internal Globe memo on ethics and accuracy written by Baron which stated: “In the cause of fairness, we must allow principal subjects of our stories a reasonable period of time to respond to any allegations against them.”

Why the rush?

Why did the Globe rush the story into print? Baron conceded that the interview with Keaveney for the story “was conducted late at night and in some haste.” That meant there wasn’t time for the fact-checking and “skeptical editing” (to borrow a term from Reid MacCluggage) that a story of this magnitude deserves. Was it competitive pressure? The hope of an exclusive? A fear that Keaveney might change his mind about going on the record?

This is not the first time the Globe has had to back away from a Big Dig safety story, so it is surprising that there wasn’t more care taken with Keaveney memo front-pager. In April 2005 Baron had to write another front page note acknowledging “significant errors” in a story “that claimed some fire doors in the Big Dig highway project violated safety code,” and regretting that the story “did not meet our reporting and editing standards.”

The irony is that there is some independent evidence to support Keaveney’s claims that he was concerned about the safety of the connector tunnel and had broadly shared those views. Whether he had raised his fears with his superiors at Modern Continental or other Big Dig officlals is still unclear. Still, as the Globe reported on August 3, he had been openly voicing his discontent.

In recent days, several colleagues and friends of Keaveney, said they had heard him express doubts about the safety of the epoxy-and-bolt ceiling hanging system as far back as 2003.

Edward Hawthorne — a safety officer for Bond Brothers Inc., an Everett-based construction company — said he recalled Keaveney sharing his concerns with him last October at a training session for safety officers sponsored by Associated General Contractors, a trade group.

When he heard of the July 10 ceiling collapse, Hawthorne said, he thought, “Wow, Johnny was right.”

Two Norwell neighbors — James Dakin and Timothy Foley — said Keaveney had on numerous occasions expressed misgivings about the quality of work on the Big Dig, including at a 40th birthday party for Keaveney in 2003.

Foley said he recalls Keaveney telling him long ago “to floor it when driving through the tunnel.”

“I believe in this kid,” said David P. Powell, director of labor relations for Associated General Contractors, who said he offered Keaveney a job in 1998 or 1999 and called him “very principled and ethical.”

Powell added, “He has a lot of support in the safety community.”

This is the sort of reporting that the Globe could have, and should have, done before running the July 26 story; finding Modern Continental Construction employees from 1999 who remembered Keaveney raising these issues would have even further strengthened the initial story.

Repairing the damage

The best response for journalists when their credibility or accuracy is at stake is to answer any questions about how they gather and report the news openly and directly.

What should Baron and the Globe do to further address the Keaveney memo situation?

To repair the damage to the Globe‘s credibility, Baron should level with readers. The Globe still needs to answer three questions:

  1. Is the Keaveney memo a fabrication?
  2. Did Keaveney, or other Modern Continental Construction employees, warn of design flaws in the Interstate 90 connector tunnel and were warnings ignored by Modern Continental Construction and/or Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff?
  3. Did the Boston Globe adhere to basic journalistic standards in the reporting and editing of the initial Keaveney memo story? If not, why not?

The answers may be painful, but the Globe needs to address these questions, sooner rather than later.

Hindsight is always 20/20; and reasonable people in a newsroom will disagree over when a story is ready for publication. The journalism of verification, however, requires that editors ignore competitive deadline pressures and the Internet-driven 24/7 news cycle and focus on mere journalism: double-checking, giving stakeholders in the story a chance to talk, filling in the missing holes, and editing skeptically.

You may not be first to file the story if you slow the editing process down. But, as those AP editors advised me long ago, you are more likely to be right.

Full Disclosure: I worked in management at the Boston Globe from 1997-2000.

(The use of the phrase “cup of coffee” for a brief stay comes originally from major league baseball, where a young player might be added to the big team’s roster for a game or two–long enough for a cup of coffee).

; ; ; ; ;;

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Add to Technorati Favorites!


2 thoughts on “Getting it right

  1. John is my Brother and he is telling the truath about the memo. My family knew about the exixtence of the memo prior to its Globe publication. So there u go.

    Finally, the Big has take 1 life to many. They aint going to take John.

    The Bro……………

Comments are closed.