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When bad sourcing is bad for readers: Kennedy, Hudak, and the Globe--updated!

Update: To her credit, Globe metro editor Jennifer Peter acknowledges that the paper should have explained this story's origins. "The Globe has been vigilant in giving credit to news organizations," she says via email, "and--in hindsight--we wish we had done so in this case as well."

If you read Media Nation, the blog written by my friend and former colleague Dan Kennedy (who's also a assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a regular panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press"), you know that Dan was personally responsible for getting would-be US Congressman Bill Hudak--who has some pretty extreme views about President Barack Obama--to retract his claim that he'd been endorsed by US Senator Scott Brown.

But the Globe, in its coverage of the Hudak-Brown contretemps, basically wrote Dan out of the story. On the afternoon of January 22, the Globe's Metro Desk page reported, in an unbylined piece, that Hudak accompanied his retraction with complaints that "left-wing bloggers" were trying to smear him as a birther, i.e., someone who claims Obama wasn't born in the US and isn't eligible to be president. And the next day, in a piece by Milton Valencia, the Globe said Hudak's retraction followed Brown's denial of any endorsement, which "came as several political blogs cited news reports from the 2008 presidential campaign, when Hudak erected a poster on his lawn in Boxford that depicted Barack Obama as Osama Bin Laden.

The reluctance of major media outlets to credit smaller outlets for breaking a story is an industry-wide problem. As I noted back in 2007, non-credit doesn't just deny the journalists who got there first the appropriate recognition from their peers and the public. It also obscures information that readers need to have if they're going to fully process the story in question.

Take the not-insignificant question of whether Bill Hudak is, in fact, a birther. As already noted, the first Globe report on the situation allowed Hudak to dismiss the birther charge as a left-wing smear. The second report struck a similar note: Hudak, Valencia wrote, "repudiated the idea that he was a birther, saying that he had only been quoting reports that Obama was born in Kenya, not stating it as his own belief." 

Problem is, Dan's original post on the subject calls the accuracy of Hudak's denials into question. In that post, Dan quotes a 2008 article from the Tri-Town Transcript (a paper published by Gatehouse, which was recently embroiled in a legal battle with the Globe over local-news aggregation) that suggests Hudak actually takes the birther critique very seriously:

Hudak asserts that Obama was not born in the United States but in Kenya, according to affidavits that he made available to the Tri-Town Transcript. He said that Obama has ties to the Muslim faith through an extremist cousin that is from Kenya.

“There is a lot more going on here than anyone knows,” Hudak said.

By not linking to Dan's blog--or even mentioning it by name--the Globe kept readers from getting this vital bit of context. And, as an added minus, it portrayed itself as an old-media vehicle that's not quite comfortable tapping in to the broader news conversation taking place online. That's not the perception the Globe wants to cultivate these days.

I've contacted Valencia and metro editor Jennifer Peter to ask why the paper didn't provide more precise sourcing; if I hear back, I'll post an update here.

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