We screwed up on Sunday afternoon when we incorrectly reported on roanoke.com that Eric Clapton would perform with the Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band at the Down by the River Festival in Roanoke.
The post was on the site for less than two and a half hours before it was corrected — but that doesn’t make the error any less embarrassing.
Several people have e-mailed to question our credibility and ask how it happened.
I’d like to blame it all on the source who burned our reporter Tad Dickens — and that was a major contributing factor — but we also made several key mistakes.
Here’s a run down of what happened:
Rumors had been circulating for days that Clapton would perform at the show. Clapton and Trucks have a musical relationship that includes Trucks’ stint touring the world with Clapton.
The buzz intensified Sunday morning after Mountain Heart lead singer Josh Shilling posted on his Twitter account that he had been told Clapton would play.
Dickens, who was already on the scene at the concert site, sought out Kirk Avenue Music Hall’s Gary Jackson for confirmation.
Jackson, a key promoter of the show, told Dickens that Clapton had checked into the Hotel Roanoke on Saturday night.
A few minutes later, Dickens wrote a short news item that was posted on roanoke.com at 2:55 p.m. He didn’t reveal the source of his confirmation because he hadn’t established with Jackson whether the conversation was on or off the record.
Soon after the story posted, we heard from the band’s managers that it wasn’t true. We corrected the mistake at 5:25 p.m.
Jackson’s explanation as to why he told us Clapton was in town: “I was joking,” he told Dickens today. He also said he had no idea that Dickens planned to publish the information online.
I don’t know Jackson’s motive for misleading Dickens, but on Sunday he never let on that he wasn’t serious.
Still, Dickens admits that he should have more clearly told Jackson that he planned to post an online story. That might have put an end to the “joke.”
That’s one of several important lessons we learned.
In hindsight, we should have also had a more in-depth discussion about whether to post the story online without a named source.
Our standards and practices clearly point out the perils of using unnamed sources:
“The Roanoke Times strives to provide its readers with believable and useful information. Readers cannot know whether to believe or disbelieve information attributed to anonymous sources. They cannot use the information because, without knowing the source, they have no means of assessing its value.”
But our standards also acknowledge that reporting sometimes requires the use of unnamed sources. It’s allowed, according to the written standards, when the following conditions have been met:
- The supervising editor determines that there is a need for the public to know the information provided by the source and no on-the-record means of obtaining it exists.
- The supervising editor knows the identity of the unnamed source.
- The reader is told as much as possible about the unnamed source and about the reason for anonymity. In doing this, though, we should always balance our obligation to protect the confidentiality of our sources.
- Extensive efforts have been made to corroborate the accuracy of the information provided by the unnamed source.
- The supervising editor informs the managing editor or editor. The final decision whether to print the material rests with them.
We didn’t meet those conditions on Sunday and our credibility suffered. That’s not something we take lightly.
No one feels worse about the mistake than Dickens. This post is not intended as criticism of his work but to provide transparency to the decisions we made.
Dickens is one of the newsroom’s most trusted reporters. He’s won a Virginia Press Association award for his concert reviews and in 2008 won an in-house award that is given “to the staff member whose work in the past 12 months has displayed, day in and day out, an intense curiosity, a depth of understanding, and an enterprising drive to discover unique and significant stories.”
We’re fortunate to have him on staff.
Michael Stowe, Managing Editor