Friday, January 30, 2009

Breaking News: Chris Mortensen Doesn't Understand Journalistic Integrity

Okay, so that's not really breaking news.

As I take a break between shifts at the Oolitic kanuter valve plant, I'd like to point out a fairly old story, but one worth telling. As you probably know, Chris Mortensen is an ESPN reporter. His job is to do investigative reporting on the NFL. Many of his stories involve using unnamed sources to get "behind the scenes" stories.

Mort has many critics, who say that he is seldom right about the news he breaks, and that he basically reports rumors. One such story happened earlier this month.

Back on January 4th, Mortensen wrote a story concerning the Oakland Raiders possibly negotiating to sell off part of the team to a billionaire who has wanted to move a team to Los Angeles. The Raiders denied the story, with team chief executive Amy Trask saying, "Chris' report is not true." Trask also went on to say that Mortensen never contacted the Raiders for their response.

Denials of this type are pretty common, so no big deal, right? However, what happened next isn't so common--in standing by his report, Mortensen said:

'The Raiders have lost the privilege with me of running stories past them for comment,' he said. 'This stems from their history of denials to most stories I have reported — as well as others in the media — when those stories have eventually proven to be true.'

So we have a reporter admitting that he has stopped giving the subject of a story he is writing a chance to respond--one of the most basic tenets of journalism! Yes, many times teams will categorically deny stories, even when those stories turn out to be true. However, a journalist must always ask the subject of his or her story for comment. Period. The fact that Mortensen called it a "privilege" for him to actually do what he is supposed to do as a reporter shows exactly how arrogant Mortensen is.

Later that night Mortensen backed off:

Upon further review, I should not have qualified any potential communication with the Raiders as a 'privilege.' I'd say they have repeatedly diminished and discouraged efforts to reach out for an official comment based on the repeated denials of prior stories...

Not much of an apology. At least Mortensen admitted that using the word "privilege" was dumb, but he still made no apology or admission that he was wrong in not contacting the Raiders for their side of the story. Again, one of the most basic principles of journalism is allow subjects of a story a chance to respond.

This is yet another case of a reporter using questionable sources (or more likely, only one source) to get information and then not bothering to check the facts. The sad thing is, where was the ESPN producer who should have been checking Mortensen's work? And why didn't ESPN issue its own apology?

It's clear that Mortensen doesn't think he needs to follow journalistic principles. It's also very clear that ESPN also feels it doesn't need to hold its reporters accountable, even when those reporters repeatedly ignore the basic standards of journalism.

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