Friday, December 17, 2010

KHOU 11's Mark Greenblatt recalls agency leaking his investigations to competitor

Yesterday, KTRK 13 Undercover's Wayne Dolcefino gave us an inside look into the world of Houston investigative reporting. This sort of stuff is why I write this blog. Hopefully we all can learn something from posts like this.

On the heels of the Dolcefino Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lesson, we hear from another major Houston investigative reporter. KHOU 11's Mark Greenblatt has been a friend of the mikemcguff.com blog and offers his thoughts on reporters investigating other reporter's work.

"It is my deep belief that journalists who file public information requests for the purpose of stealing or “beating” another journalist to a story are doing a strong disservice to the profession of journalism," Greenblatt told the mikemcguff.com blog over email. "Worse yet, they’re hurting the public they *should* be aiming to serve.

"Why? When a reporter engages in a war of a trying to do what I call a “crash piece” just to ruin a competing news organization’s in-depth work, sometimes, that competitor may feel forced to air an in-depth project before it has been carefully reviewed. In that rush to “get it first”, they sometimes forget what’s more important: to get it right."

Greenblatt offers another interesting perspective. What about when an agency that a reporter is investigating, gives stories to other journalists in efforts to weaken the piece? It's happened to Greenblatt.

"I had suspected a local agency I was investigating was “leaking” stories to a competitor, calling them up to tell them about stories so they might do a story first that would be “thin,” not well sourced, investigated, or vetted for accuracym," Greenblatt recalled. "In this way, the p.r. department of that agency also knew the reporter they were giving the story to, wouldn’t have time to learn enough about the subject to ask hard-hitting questions of the agency that handed the story over to them on a silver platter.

"I began to grow suspicious after a pattern of this sort of stuff. So I filed a FOIA, or to be more precise a request under the Texas Public Information Act- for all the communications between that news organization and the agency I was investigating. Immediately, the emails that were turned over proved up all my worst suspicions… and unfortunately even more. Indeed, the agency was very much leaking my stories- likely figuring it would be better to take a soft hit from a “crash” piece than a hard one. I saw a lot of other things in those emails that would raise a lot eyebrows in the ivory towers of ethics classes in journalism schools. Writing a story about this sort of relationship … wouldn’t necessarily serve the public in my mind. It would only make them lose faith in a bunch of squabbling journalists (similar to how the public loses faith in politicians that run negative ads). I didn’t want to do that. I like to aspire- to be better than that. I did, however, in my own way let both the reporter – and the agency know that I knew what was going on. And I gave the top people at that agency a choice on future stories (citing what I had learned): They could get a call from me from now moments before we were about to run a major report on their agency… leaving THEM scrambling from now on- or they could immediately cease and decist from this horrific behavior. They chose… to stop leaking my stories. And while I never ran a public story about any of this… in that way, the public had already won."

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