January 15th, 2014

False and Misleading Headlines (Youth Baseball Edition) – Updated

An unhappy Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays throws his helmet in 2013.

An unhappy Brett Lawrie of the Toronto Blue Jays throws his helmet in 2013.

Headlines make a difference, as headlines can skew the viewpoint of the reader before the facts are even read in the article. That is, if the article is even read. Many folks, of course, just skim.

And so it is with KCRA in Sacramento, CA.

The headline reads:

14-year-old Little Leaguer sued by coach for celebrating win

The problem? That isn’t really why anyone was sued. An actual reading of the article reveals that the defendant, a 14-year-old, threw off his helmet as he raced home with a winning run. But the helmet hit the coach and caused a torn Achilles tendon.

The kid, in other words, wasn’t sued because for celebrating, but for causing an injury to his coach.

As per the article’s actual text:

In legal papers filed in court, the teen’s former coach, Alan Beck, contends the boy “carelessly threw a helmet, striking Plaintiff’s Achilles tendon and tearing it.”

Whether the underlying facts support the suit or not, I have no way of knowing. All we have now is a legal pleading and a short news story.

Will it be tossed out on assumption of risk grounds? Perhaps. Throwing helmets isn’t exactly part of the game, but as you can see from the graphic above of Brett Lawrie throwing his helmet in 2013, it does happen on occasion.

But one thing is clear. The headline writer didn’t accurately tell you what the story was about.

Does this matter? You bet. Because headlines like this help to shape public opinion, and that public opinion affects how potential jurors will feel about cases before a trial even starts.

(hat tip, Conrad Saam)

Update (1/16/14):  CNN now has the story, with interviews with the parents of the kid being sued, bemoaning the suit, and the coach who brought the suit discussing his Achilles injury from a 6-foot tall, 180 pound kid, and the lack of apology. CNN harps on the amount sued for: $500,000. And that makes this a good time to remember that ad damnum clauses such as this are a very bad idea. They have, thankfully, been outlawed in New York.

The coach that sued says “it’s not about the money,” but the fact that there is a number in the complaint for the media to focus on takes that issue out of his hands.

While I don’t know if this suit will survive due to assumption of risk issues — and if California law is the same as New York law I think it will get tossed — it’s clear that the CNN focus is on money instead of safety. I wrote about that recently when Red Bull was sued for $85M — where I noted that it was a very poor move to put a number in the complaint, not only because it isn’t allowed but because it shifted the focus away from product safety.



December 6th, 2012

The Subway Pusher and Media Hypocrisy

Photo by Janis Krums, used without permission under doctrine of Fair Use.

In January 2009 when Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger splash landed a plane in the Hudson, the first picture to emerge was placed on Twitter. The photo was shot by Janis Krums, who was on a ferry that was first to reach the downed plane. At the time it was taken, neither he, nor anyone else, knew what kind of tragedy might await the passengers. Passengers stood on the wing with the icy waters beneath them.

Krums tweeted at the time:

“There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.”

The WSJ wrote of the photographer, “Notch another win for citizen journalism,” and the Daily News called his 15 seconds of fame “well-deserved.”

Fast forward to this past week and another photo taken amidst a potential tragedy. Ki Suk Han was pushed onto the subway tracks as a train approached.  R. Umar Abbasi snapped a picture of Han before he was hit by the train and killed, which the NY Post put on the front page. Because that is what the Post does.

In contrast to the Twittering Krums, Abbasi said that that he ran as fast as he could toward him, snapping photos with his arm extended,  partly to signal with his flash to the driver and partly because he thought whatever photos he could manage might help police later on. He didn’t bother with the viewfinder.

Two pictures taken at two different events that could have turned tragic at the time the photo was taken. You would think that the photographers would be treated the same, right?

Actually, no, they shouldn’t be treated the same. Krums not only took the picture, but then went to Twitter and knocked out a tweet while a tragedy was potentially unfolding in front of him. At the time, I wrote:

Why, on godsgreenearth anyone would think this is a “well-deserved” “win” of any kind and relevant to any serious issue of news reporting is beyond me. Why would it matter that someone twittered about a loaded airplane going down in full view of thousands of people on the edge of the biggest city in the country — other than to the guy who took the picture and spent his time twittering it to friends? Did Twittering save lives? Of course not. Rescue was already in progress.

While Krums was being lauded as a celebrity, I wanted to know why the hell he was spending time on his iPhone instead of asking the crew what he could do to help, getting life vests ready to toss overboard, looking for survivors in the frigid waters, and looking around to see where, if at all, there might be lifeboats that he might need to assist with. Obsessiveness to technology can also mean the difference between life and death.

But it was Abbasi, not Krums, who was vilified.

Al Roker said on The Today Show:

“I’m sorry, somebody’s on the tracks, that’s not going to help,” he said during the segment. “Try to get them off the tracks,” he added, a hint of disgust in his voice.

From James King in the Village Voice:

The Post just happened to have a photographer at the same subway stop at the exact moment when the man — identified as 58-year-old Ki Suk Han, a Queens father and husband — was pushed to his death.

The photog, Umar Abbasi, opted to help Suk Han escape a certain death in a rather unconventional way: by snapping photos as the train was barreling down on him.

And John Cook From Gawker (re-pub in Slate)

“amazing Post photog R Umar Abbasi took a focused composed pic of man abt to die on subway even tho he says he was just using flash to warn.”

Those are a few I found in 10 minutes of looking; there are more.

But the question that the media, and media critics, need to ask is this: Why are these two photographers treated differently in the public eye? Why was Krums given a free pass when so many jumped to conclusions about Abbati?

There is something very wrong with this picture.




October 26th, 2011

Daily News Rips Me Off (Again) – Updated

This story has a sense of deja vu for me. It was two days ago that I wrote up the settlement of a lawsuit where the State of New York agreed to pay $1.2M for a prison death. Then today, 48 hours later, the Daily News runs the same story and calls it an “Exclusive.” Some Exclusive.

The rip-off writer is Daily News staffer Rich Schapiro ([email protected]).

I knew I’d seen this act before, so I went into my archives and, sure enough, it was the Daily News that also ripped me off in June 2010, when I published some documents related to the September 11 litigation. I was a little concerned back then that I would sound petty in my complaint, until I found out it was a recurring problem in the media. (See: How the Mainstream Media Stole Our News Story Without Credit, by Danny Sullivan)

If this happened twice to me in 16 months, for this modest little blog, then the question to ask is: How often is the Daily News ripping off stories from others? Is it just me? Unlikely.

So, while it may sound petty to complain, I think it is the type of conduct that needs to be documented and the writers and media groups held accountable.


Update 10/27 – I received a call from Mr. Schapiro who, as you might guess, wasn’t happy about being called  a “rip-off writer.” He claims that he didn’t put the word “Exclusive” on the headline. Two things worth noting: First, when he did an interview for the story, he’d been told that a lawyer had blogged about it. (He said he hadn’t read it.) Second, while Brandon Jackson is a common name, if you do a Google search confined to the past week my story pops up on the first page. So it was easy to find. Was rip-off too strong an opinion? Hard to say. But there was, at a bare minimum, sloppiness.

He also wanted to give me tips on how to be a better newsman and have a better blog. I withheld comment on that. He also said I should have called him before publishing. (He’s probably right on that part.)

Last thing: I should have also given a link to the piece about the New York Times taking my story on Sonia Sotomayor two years ago, as it also deals with the mainstream media taking items they find on blogs and treating them as their own. The story provoked comment from the White House regarding the ethical issues that I had raised. Here it is:   NYT: “Sotomayor & Associates” Becomes an Issue For Nominee and White House


June 4th, 2010

When the Mainstream Media Swipes the Blogger’s Goods

I’ve been mulling this over for a few days, undecided if I should write about how the mainstream media swiped an original story I published last week. And then I saw that someone else just went down the same road.

Danny Sullivan wrote How The Mainstream Media Stole Our News Story Without Credit. And in it he told the story of a ludicrous lawsuit of a woman who sued Google after she was hit by a car after following Google directions. The media loves these types of lawsuits — those outliers of the courthouse that make people scratch their heads and wonder at the stupidity of mankind.  And I usually watch them due to the deleterious effect that they have on the legitimate suits in the courthouse that never see the papers. 

In my story, I wrote about the lawyers representing the 10,000 September 11 responders that had been sickened, and who had brought suit. A massive settlement — as much as $657M — had been scuttled in March by Judge Alvin Hellerstein who complained about the legal fees that plaintiffs counsel would get. He wanted the lawyers to cut their fees so that the claimants would get more. (They were to receive approximately the same as defense counsel, but only the plaintiffs who had taken the risk and put up their own money were singled out.)

There were thousands of articles written about the busted settlement, due to the extraordinary nature of September 11, the 10,000 claimants, and more than half a billion dollars at stake.

The newsworthy part was the two letters that I published early on Friday May 28th —  they were not part of the public file — that disclosed a willingness by plaintiffs’ counsel to cut their fees from 33% to 25%. While settlement negotiations are usually private, it busted out into public view when one plaintiff’s firm demanded in a letter to the court that they get their full fee. The firm apparently copied every lawyer involved, thereby insuring that some member of the press would get their hands on it.

I published the letters, both as a hard news story along with my commentary at the end. Above the Law picked it up that same day and ran it as its first item in its Morning Docket with other hard news items. That basically guaranteed wide distribution.

 The Daily News then used the material on Sunday to run a moronic editorial called Shave ‘Em Closer, about cutting the legal fees even further.  And in doing so they failed to give credit for where they got the information. This left the reader to believe the hard news part of the editorial was from their own news gathering.

Now a short rant on the substance of the editorial. Here was their justification:

Envisioning an enormous payday, the lead attorneys in the case, a firm called Worby Groner EdelmanNapoli Bern, signed up sickened 9/11 workers when few others paid any mind to their epidemic illnesses. Retainer agreements set the legal fees at 33% of any recoveries.

Missing from every part of the editorial is the $30M plaintiffs’ counsel spent out of their own pockets, and the spectacular risk of taking the suit. Essentially, if the suit failed, the lawyers would not only have wasted seven years of their lives, but faced personal and professional ruin. No one else involved in the litigation was asked to cut their fees. Here’s an idea for the News: Why not cut your prices in half? I think you charge too much. Please don’t belly-ache about your expenses and risks in running your operation. You clearly don’t care about such things.

OK, Daily News rant over, back to the main subject. The Associated Press read the Daily News editorial and then created a new story based upon it. They apparently failed to speak to the News or bothered looking for other sources for the story. They simply parroted what the News said. No cites to original sources. And once in the hands of the AP, off the story went around the world.

Is this a self-interested, petulant complaint by me? I thought it might be and was going to kill the idea of writing about it until I saw Danny Sullivan’s piece on the exact same subject. I’m obviously not alone.

What is it about the mainstream media that believes they can just swipe the stories of others and run with them without attribution?


The mainstream media has for year, moaned about websites and blogs using their stories without giving proper credit to the original source. Which makes it slightly embarrassing when the shoe is revealed to be on the other foot… [more]

Should mainstream media be held to different standards than bloggers when it comes to crediting sources? Mainstream media agencies have frequently turned their noses up at bloggers, essentially claiming that they steal and repurpose the work of their hard working journalists. While this may be true in some cases, it is hardly fair to say that this is true in general. In fact, this week, we’ve seen a clear example of the hypocrisy of this notion, because mainstream media publications are clearly just as guilty as blogs when it comes to improper crediting of sources…  [more]

…[Sullivan’s]  post on his personal blog goes into painstaking detail about the chronology of the story’s proliferation out here on the interwebs, and who linked, or failed to link, to whom…The comments on Sullivan’s post contain a spirited discussion of journalistic Netiquette, and are worth a perusal… [more]

…Not giving credit for a scoop is uncool, but it’s pretty low on the scale of journalistic sins. It is a nice shiv in the side of newspapers complaining about blogs and aggregators ripping them off…[more]


May 7th, 2010

The Media’s Failure in the Starbucks Hot Tea Lawsuit

To call this a media failure would be an understatement: The story of the woman scalded by Starbucks tea was reported in dozens of  news venues, both online and traditional. And when I wrote about it yesterday I noted that a little thing called “facts” just happened to be missing.

And do you know why the facts were missing? Because there weren’t any interviews with the complainant or her attorney.

When I say no interviews, I mean none. Nada. Zip. Bupkus. The first interview with the victim’s lawyer regarding this suit, which went international because this was a Reuters story, was the one I did yesterday. How pathetic is that?

This posting isn’t really about the suit, some of whose details you can now read at my prior post linked above; it’s about media incompetence.

According to  Elise Langsam, attorney for the burned victim, she received a phone call from Reuters, but she wasn’t available when the call came in. And before she even had a chance to get back to the reporter to discuss the actual case, it was already published.

The writer on the piece is identified as Jonathan Stempel and the editor is Bernard Orr. Apparently neither of them thought the facts would be important  to their fast-moving story of a woman being burned. Had they actually given a damn about their story, they would have learned that the cup’s top popped off because it wasn’t put on right by Starbucks, and that the scald on her arm left her hospitalized for five days. Instead, they relied on a bare bones Complaint that put Starbucks on notice of the suit, but doesn’t get into detail.

Reuters simply published a snippet from a modest legal filing, and then regurgitated the story of Stella Liebeck and McDonald’s coffee. As if all burn cases from chain restaurants are exactly the same. That’s journalism today? This is all of the meat and potatoes from their version of the story:

Starbucks Corp has been sued by a customer who allegedly suffered second-degree burns after being served tea that was too hot.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff Zeynep Inanli was served tea that was “unreasonably hot, in containers which were not safe,” at a Starbucks store at 685 Third Avenue in Manhattan.

As a result of Starbucks’ negligence, the plaintiff suffered “great physical pain and mental anguish,” including the burns, the complaint said.

You want to know what their excuse was for not finding out the actual facts? Here it is:

Starbucks, based in Seattle, did not immediately return requests for comment. The plaintiff’s lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment.

Clearly, this was a critical,  time-sensitive story that had to be published immediately. They must have been sitting there terrified that they might get out-scooped, while an environmental disaster looms in the waters to our south, while we fight two wars, while the world waits to see if Greece will go belly-up and while our economy struggles.

Does Reuters actually give a damn about what they produce, even when their writers don’t? Or is it just enough that they produce media filler, and leave actual journalism to others?

When I saw the piece I couldn’t believe such miserably lazy reporting passed for news, but when I Googled it I was stunned at the number of major news organizations that decided to run with it. What follows now are some of the media victims of the Reuters incompetence, both here and abroad. But they share the blame for publishing the Reuters piece without first  reading it to see if it was worth anything. The fact that facts were missing should have been evident to even a casual observer:

Sometimes people wonder if bloggers should be called journalists. But this blogger wonders if certain journalists should be called journalists.

File this under epic media fail.