Editorial: Let's not play 'gotcha' journalism

Early this week, VTDigger, the online news nonprofit based in Montpelier, stretched its tentacles to report a salacious and juicy tidbit of news about Porter Hospital President Dr. Seleem Choudhury being under investigation for plagiarizing parts of his weekly blog. The blog is meant to be an uplifting message from the new president. It is sent out to hospital staff and a few folks from outside the hospital community, including a reporter here at the Addison Independent.

The thrust of the blog is inspirational and its intent, Porter spokesman Ron Hallman says, is to keep staff and a few members of the community in the know. The weekly messages were started by Dr. Fred Kniffin, who served as president for Porter for the three years prior to Choudhury’s start this past June. During Kniffin’s term, the messages served a vital function to restore trust in hospital leadership after a turbulent eight-month stint under the failed leadership of Lynn Boggs.

The Addison Independent was apprised of the allegations of plagiarism a week ago via an email sent by a member of the Porter community. That allegation pointed out seven instances when Choudhury copied passages from other writers into his blog without providing attribution. The person who sent the email wished to remain anonymous, which has its own ethical challenges for journalists. (Is the allegation a personal vendetta against this new president, for example, or is it a legitimate attempt to correct a mistake by leadership and direct a better path forward?)

The Independent’s position was that such plagiarism, even in a personal blog written to a private group of people, should be stopped; the board of directors should discuss the obvious wrong and press him to admit other instances of plagiarism if that is the case; and, going forward, the president should use proper attribution whenever needed. We wrote an email to hospital officials saying as much and emphasized that we would not be able to trust the authorship of any future guest commentaries or community forums from President Choudhury if he exercised such lax discipline in his weekly blogs.

We chose not to write a story about the incident because the president admitted one instance of plagiarism in that same blog and openly apologized. As that post was widely shared and nothing was being hidden, we deemed it an internal matter for the board to handle with its new president.

(After the VTDigger story was published, we felt it was necessary to acknowledge the investigation. John Flowers reported on the matter in today's paper.)

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We have little doubt Digger received the same email we did from the same person. They, however, reported the story as if it were a major infraction by a hospital president.

As part of media literacy, the public should ponder why.

But first, readers should do a gut check on their own reactions and ask themselves: What’s the news value? As one commenter to the VTDigger story posted sarcastically, “Are they going to fire him because he didn’t use quotation marks in emails? Quick, call the FBI!”

Others criticized the hospital board for wasting its time and money on such a trivial matter, but that misses who is pressing this issue.

VTDigger, not the hospital, is making this a statewide concern. Why would VTDigger write such a long story and tease it with the provocative headline: “Porter Medical Center president under investigation for plagiarism?” Clickbait.

In the digital world, the more clicks you get the more you can tout your readership. Consider also how the headline exaggerates the story: Most readers would assume “under investigation” would imply by law enforcement and might click on the story to see what trouble Porter is facing. In reality, it is being reviewed by the hospital board. Nor did Digger do any research to discover the seven examples of plagiarized blogs, as the story implies; rather they should have been more forthright in acknowledging they were tipped off, as we were, by an anonymous insider who supplied links to the seven examples.

Digger’s hope is that the story will attract Addison County readers, who will think Digger uncovered an investigative story of significance (most will read the headline but not the story) and one day donate to their cause. In short, they chose the story and crafted that headline for potential monetary gain, not for its news value.

That’s been the dirty secret of digital media since day one, and today’s online news (from Facebook to Twitter to Digger) is the worse for it.

What digital media knows is that playing “gotcha journalism” generates more clicks than does a routine news story about a school board meeting, or a legislative committee meeting, or a serious story about phosphorus running into Lake Champlain. Every journalistic outlet does this to some extent, even in print. But digital journalism has pushed the edges, and the result is the unraveling of the trust placed in them — and rightly so.

(Caveat: VTDigger does lots of good stories, too, and we’re a patron of their services, but stories like this damage the credibility of all media.)

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Digger did a similar “hit job” this week on retired, long-time Burlington Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who is often called the “dean of Vermont journalism” for the respect he’s earned over a lifetime in the business. Donoghue retired more than a year ago, but can’t keep away from his love of reporting, so he freelances — mostly crime-related stories, where he has lots of police contacts — for several news outlets, including this paper. As a freelancer, he is his own boss and pitches the stories he wants to write.

In a long and provocative story, VTDigger lambasted him for serving on a Vermont Catholic Diocese committee to review the church’s history of sexual abuse by priests in Vermont, saying among other things, it represented a conflict of interests because he could no longer write objectively about that issue, and calling him a hypocrite for not releasing all the information the church committee found during its investigation.

Donoghue’s defense was simple: He essentially said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he was a devout Catholic who wanted to serve his church after years of serving his profession. He said he thought he could bring valid reasons to the committee for being as transparent as possible and he thought he had helped accomplish that.

As for not being able to write stories about sex abuse and the Catholic Church, there’s no conflict if he doesn’t want to write about that topic. Remember, he no longer has an editor asking him to cover anything; he chooses what he wants to write and if the editor wants the story, the editor makes that decision.

Why did Digger do the story? Because, like a big city tabloid, they know dirt sells, and the more clicks they get the more they can ask of their supporters. Granted, it was a sexy story that generated a lot of interest because it dealt with a well-known journalist. But readers should ask: What news value did the story have, or was its purpose to cast a bad light on a person and generate clicks?

In both of these stories, if it’s the latter, readers should chalk it up to a media literacy lesson learned.

Angelo Lynn

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Addison County Independent

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Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100