Colorado editors retract front-page 9/11 newspaper story alleging 'fabricated' quotes

Your week in the news behind the news in Colorado

UPDATE: Three hours after this newsletter went out and this post went live Friday, The Boulder Daily Camera published a lengthy item retracting the Sept. 11 story in question.

From a remarkable nearly 1,000-word note to readers by editors John Vahlenkamp and Julie Vossler-Henderson:

The Camera is retracting an article that appeared in its Sept. 11 edition, headlined “Reflections on finding peace.” The newspaper has concluded the article substantially misrepresented the stories of its primary subjects — Mark Pfundstein, John Maynard and Danna Hirsch.

The Camera has determined that multiple statements attributed to these sources, including purported direct quotations, were fabricated.

The rest of the item runs down specific issues editors found with the story in detail — including “the location of the Pentagon.” (The story stated the building was in Maryland not Virginia; that could be the least of the story’s issues, though, according to the paper.)

Elsewhere in the item, “The Camera acknowledges the possibility that there might be additional inaccuracies in quotations” attributed to sources, the editors wrote. “Reliable transcripts of these interviews do not exist.”

And, even more:

This list does not necessarily constitute every error in the article.

While the Camera published this article in good faith, we regret that quotations attributed to interview subjects were materially inaccurate.

In addition to retracting this article, editors have taken internal steps to prevent similar incidents from happening again.

It would be nice to know what those steps are.

The retraction comes two weeks after the paper pulled the story from its website and replaced it with a vague editor’s note — and a year after a major front-page correction to a story by a different reporter who is no longer there.

Reached Friday evening, the author of the paper’s retracted 9/11 story, April Morganroth, whom the paper did not name in its retraction, declined to comment on the record.

Prairie Mountain Media Publisher Al Manzi said Thursday he was dealing with a personnel issue. Multiple sources close to the paper said the author is no longer there.

On Saturday evening, a reporter at the paper confirmed it:

The tweet thread above, which you should read if you want more clarity about this situation, is an example of one of the elements of journalism: That “its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.” He goes further than the front-page retraction by explaining what the paper has done, and what he thinks it should do in the future.

For instance, he says, “I feel the first step is more due diligence in hiring. I feel there were some frankly easily identifiable red flags that I brought up with editors after her hire. I’m sure we’ll put in whatever steps we can on the proofing side with the staffing we have.”

Newspaper retractions are rare and typically are embarrassing to news organizations when they have to make them. They can illustrate a breakdown in the journalistic process of a reporter and also a weakness in a paper’s editing regimen.

As the financial model for local newspapers has collapsed over the past decade or longer, many local newspapers have shed their copy editors. Many no longer employ fact-checkers — if they ever did. One of the elements of journalism that sets it apart from other forms of communication is its essence and discipline of verification.

On Saturday, the Camera’s retraction appeared on the front page of its printed edition.

Below is the original newsletter and post that went out Friday afternoon…

What happened at the Boulder and Longmont papers? We might find out soon

Five days after a front-page story appeared on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, editors at the daily newspapers in Boulder and Longmont deleted all roughly 2,000 words of it from their websites.

At the Boulder Daily Camera and the Longmont Times-Call, the story originally appeared online under the headline “Boulder residents who survived 9/11 reflect on finding peace.” Then, a few days later, the story went poof.

Because not everything completely vanishes from the internet these days, a savvy web user can easily locate the disappeared story via a cache service if they’re curious enough. According to an archived version of it, the narrative carried the experiences of a few local residents who recalled their proximity to the 2001 attacks. It didn’t seem all that controversial.

But now, about three weeks after the story hit the web at both papers, all that appears in its place is this:

Editor’s note: This story has been removed from our website while editors investigate its accuracy.

That’s a vague note that a reader could interpret different ways — including ways not charitable to sources in the story or to the reporter who wrote it, April Morganroth, who joined Prairie Mountain Media about a year ago from Arizona. (By Friday, she had not tweeted since the editor’s note went up two weeks ago; UPDATE: following the newspaper’s retraction she had limited who could view her tweets.)

So what happened? Publisher Al Manzi said Thursday the paper would be addressing it soon in print. “It’ll be clear what we’re doing,” he said.

That’s good to hear, given the unusual length of time for such a murky note to hang out there about a front-page news story’s disappearance — and also given some questions about it that have been bouncing around privately among some in the state’s press corps. Earlier this week, Camera Editor Julie Vossler-Henderson had declined to talk about the story when I asked, saying Wednesday that she needed to “let that editor’s note speak for itself.”

The author of the story in question declined to speak on the record about it.

Readers might recall that last year the Camera published a major front-page correction to a story that had similarly been removed from its website; the reporter responsible for that story is no longer there. At the time, editors would say only that the correction “speaks for itself” and “will have to stand on its own.”

Hopefully we’ll get a fuller picture soon about what happened this time around. You can check back here for an update if and when the paper clears this up.

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Black Voices: 5 recommendations for Colorado

Last week, News Voices: Colorado, a project of Free Press in collaboration with Colorado Media Project and COLab and managed by Free Press’s Diamond Hardiman, released five recommendations from a working group that has been “focused on how to improve access to trustworthy news and information for Black residents throughout the state.”

From the executive summary:

The working group sought tangible ways for communities, philanthropy and newsrooms to acknowledge and address the harms — historic and ongoing — local media coverage has inflicted on Black communities.

Below are the five recommendations:

1. Name and acknowledge how local-news coverage and media institutions have negatively impacted Black Colorado communities. 2. Use existing platforms to gather and amplify the voices and perspectives of Black Coloradans. 3. Contribute to the growth of a vibrant Black Colorado press corps and equally robust community of Black storytellers in other media. 4. Build power in Black communities to hold news media accountable. 5. Dedicate more resources for reporting that uncovers, examines and provides solutions for issues that disproportionately impact Black Coloradans.

The report also lays out specific ways newsrooms can adopt these recommendations. For instance, here’s what they could do, specifically, about the second one:

1. Dedicate a column in your paper to Black voices, with content from Black-led organizations and community members on a rotating basis. Partner with cultural centers at universities, Black-serving youth organizations and Black high-school students to participate in this column. 2. Through relationship building, community sourcing and other mediums, newsrooms should connect with Black-led organizations and Black content creators to establish content-sharing agreements for work they’re already producing in their magazines, newsletters and social-media pages. 3. Create a statewide resource guide for newsrooms of Black community leaders, organizers and experts. 4. Create a Black freelancers’ database to increase accessibility for Black journalists, photographers and other content creators to secure opportunities for both contract work and employment. 5. Use newsletters and other information-sharing platforms for Black readers to easily navigate and find content that pertains to their communities.

“It isn’t easy to discuss how newsrooms can come to terms with past and present inequities — but it’s a necessary conversation that must follow the lead of the very communities that have historically been marginalized, maligned and excluded,” the report states. “At the same time, news organizations and the funders that support them bear the responsibility of carrying out the changes that communities are calling for.”

Also last week, Hardiman appeared with Ammie Brown, who participated in the Black Voices working group, on an edition of Free Press Live to discuss the findings, which you can watch here. Hardiman’s tweet thread on the report is here. Another panel, moderated by COLab’s Tina Griego and featuring members of the working group, is here. For her part, Hardiman says she’s transitioning out of the News Voices: Colorado project as Free Press winds it down and she’ll be working on more organizing that focuses on reparations, restorative justice, and abolition. 

Read the entire 30-page report at the link above.

West Slope newspaper calls out county, county pulls its ads

Earlier this month, The Ouray County Plaindealer took its county government to task, suggesting the county commissioners made a decision to hire a new county attorney “behind closed doors.” Essentially, the newspaper accused its local government of violating Colorado’s open meetings laws.

Publisher Erin McIntyre published two pointed columns about the situation, and asked county commissioners to release a recording of their secret meeting. They declined to do so.

This week, McIntyre reported in a column that the county has decided to stop publishing its meeting agendas in the newspaper, something it pays about $200 a week to do and has done for the past decade.

The publisher asked the county why they pulled their ads. From the column:

Part of the answer … included the claim that the decision to stop publishing the full agenda wasn't intended as a measure of retaliation against the paper.

We didn't ask about that, but now that it has been brought up, that's a curious answer.

We have recently been critical of the county regarding its hiring process for the new county attorney and raised concerns about following state open meetings laws. We believe the commissioners illegally made a decision selecting the new county attorney behind closed doors.

As the fourth estate, it's our job to hold government accountable and keep the community informed. We take that job seriously.

Ironically, McIntyre learned that the county started paying to publish its agendas in the local newspaper in Ouray after its former publisher took the county to task in 2006 about — (drumroll) — making decisions behind closed doors. The county settled a legal dispute with the publisher that included $6,000 in legal fees and release of a recording of the meeting, McIntyre wrote, adding that publishing the county’s full agenda in the newspaper “was seen at the time as a move toward greater transparency.”

The more things change…

Beloved former Colorado journalist’s death still ‘under investigation’

Jim Sheeler, who died at 53 last week in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, had an impact on many journalists in Colorado and beyond. That was clear from the so many positive recollections about the life and career of the former Colorado reporter that radiated from the write-ups last week about his untimely death.

From The Associated Press:

Sheeler’s 12,000-word “Final Salute” won the feature writing Pulitzer in 2006 and was expanded into a book of the same name that received a National Book Award nomination two years later. … Sheeler was a Houston native who majored in journalism at the University of Colorado and started out at the Boulder Daily Camera. He wrote for the Boulder Planet weekly paper and the Denver Post before joining the Rocky Mountain News in 2004. Early in his career, he often worked on obituaries.

The compendium of tributes to Sheeler following his death is voluminous. Writing in The Colorado Sun, Mike Littwin offered this evocative headline: “How do you write an obit for Jim Sheeler, the brilliant writer who made the death beat his own?” But none of the obits or write-ups say how Sheeler died. “The cause of death was not immediately determined,” The AP reported last week, citing the university where Sheeler taught as its source.

That’s still the case a week later. So it’s notable that for a journalist who made his career writing about death, we don’t yet know the cause of his own.

When I called the police department in Chagrin Falls on Monday, someone in the records department said she couldn’t release any documents related to a Sept. 17 call about a death at a residence where records show Sheeler lived. It’s “still under investigation,” she said. On Thursday, police issued a one-page incident report with a three-sentence narrative saying officers had located a body and turned it over the county coroner. “Initial reports indicate natural causes,” it read. An administrative assistant at the police department said they had not yet received the coroner’s report, so the full report is “still considered under investigation.”

A spokesman in the county medical examiner’s office said Friday it’s not out of the ordinary for the county not to release a cause of death after such a length of time. It can take a couple months in some cases depending on the case, he said.

I’m not sourced up with Sheeler’s family or close friends, so I went the ‘official’ route with this. I thought I’d offer what I could so far. And that’s it — as limited and frustrating as it might be.

A Colorado reporter worried about sharing her experience as a sexual assault survivor

This week, Carter Sherman published a national story for VICE about reporters who have survived sexual assault and how they’re confronting their trauma.

From the piece:

There is probably at least one sexual assault survivor in every newsroom in the U.S., because survivors are everywhere. Almost one in five women have, at some point in their life, experienced an attempted or completed rape, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 43 percent of all women in the U.S. have “experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime,” while roughly 25 percent of men said the same, a 2018 report by the agency found.

One reporter quoted in the story works in a Colorado newsroom. Here’s the excerpt from VICE:

Alison Berg, a reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today in Colorado, fought similar fears as she debated coming forward as a sexual assault survivor.

“I think my first one was that I would be pulled off of any sort of sexual assault coverage, because it would seem like I was too close to the situation or there was a conflict of interest,” she recalled. “After that, I think it was: What if I get judged? The newspaper industry—and every industry, honestly—is male-dominated. And, honestly, to be perfectly frank, I was worried that, particularly, male editors would have judged me.”

Elsewhere in the story, Berg says: “The idea of objectivity has always come from straight, white males, typically. Can a white male covering other white men be objective? We would never think to ask that. But we would ask a Black person if they can cover a Black Lives Matter rally and be objective. So I do think that objectivity and white supremacy and patriarchy are in a lot of ways intertwined.”

(Here, it might be worthwhile to highlight Tom Rosenstiel’s post at the American Press Institute about the “lost meaning of ‘objectivity’.”)

Another excerpt from VICE:

When Berg, the Colorado reporter, agreed to be named as a sexual assault survivor, she did so under some relatively rare circumstances: In 2017, a man was charged in her case with first-degree felony rape and second-degree felony forcible sexual abuse. His trial developed against a backdrop of several high-profile campus sexual assault cases in Utah, and so it drew extra media attention.

Most of the reporters covering the case, Berg said, were sensitive. But at one point, she recalled, a grueling cross-examination left her sobbing and seized by a panic attack. A TV reporter hovered outside the courtroom, wanting to ask Berg questions despite her tears.

“I was like, ‘Can you not? Clearly, I’m distressed,’” Berg said. “I think a lot of journalists just see themselves as objective robots, and I don’t think that’s what our goal should be.” 

Berg this week celebrated her one-year anniversary at the Pilot, so say congrats.

More Colorado media odds & ends

👀 Wet Mountain Tribune newspaper publisher Jordan Hedberg in Custer County said: “This year because of my Covid reporting, I was accused of ‘harassment’ and arrested for ‘disorderly conduct’.”

💨 Shannon Mullane is the latest journalist to leave The Durango Herald. (The ‘odds & ends’ section of this newsletter has noted multiple departures from this paper in recent months.)

🌇 In a new series called “After the Sun Goes Down,” the Mountain West Bureau “explores some of the region’s exclusionary past to better understand what it means about our present.” KUNC’s Robyn Vincent has a tweet thread about it.

☀️ Welcome Tatiana Flowers who joined The Colorado Sun as its inequality beat reporter. She returns to Colorado from Connecticut.

🔎 Read all four parts of Chase Woodruff’s investigation “into a culture of secrecy and political meddling at Colorado’s air pollution watchdog” for Colorado Newsline.

🤔 Parkbench, with a mission “to support small business owners with free, hyperlocal marketing and exposure,” has a presence in Longmont where readers can “stay up to date with everything going on.”

🎰 At an upcoming event in Nevada, Colorado Sun editor Larry Ryckman “will provide an overview of the crisis in local news across the country, as well as the ways in which some states are working to support and expand diverse sources of local news.”

🌱 University of Denver professor Andrew Matranga, who has “offered a cannabis journalism course at the school since 2015” talked to Westword about it.

📺 “I took a break,” said Mikayla Ortega. “And not one of those week-long breaks only to return to the burnout, but a break from news, indefinitely. I quit my job at Denver7 at the beginning of September.” (She says much more about that in the linked tweet thread above.)

🏫 Jason Gonzales, who covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, wrote about his path to journalism.

🙁 A Westword reporter found out “about a scam that involves someone calling up Best of Denver recipients and offering to frame their award for $200.” The owner of a restaurant that he nominated for an award in a certain category “actually found out about his award from the scammer!”

🖋️ Former Denver Post editor Greg Moore and Colorado Press Association CEO Tim Regan-Porter penned a column titled “How Sen. Bennet can help save community news in Colorado.

💯 KUSA 9News reported how a former Latino anchor “continues to inspire youth to pursue careers in journalism.”

🏆 The Gazette’s feature section “swept the board of categories in the 2021 Society for Features Journalism Excellence-In-Features Awards, taking home nine awards among the contest's 20 categories, including best features section among North American newspapers with a circulation of up to 90,000,” the paper reported. The Colorado professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave its First Amendment award to The Denver Post’s David Migoya and First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg.

🤖 Anyone know how to find out who’s behind this Ed News Colorado site that’s ripping off work by local Colorado reporters at credible outlets?

🐔 The Colorado Springs alt-weekly chickened out on an F-bomb in a headline.

⚙️ John Herrick, formerly of The Colorado Independent, has signed on as a reporter for the Boulder Reporting Lab where he’ll cover issues such as housing, COVID-19, climate, and local government. Kyle Harris is leaving Westword to join Denverite.

📰 Complete Colorado journalist Sherrie Peif talked about “the state of local news” and what she feels isn’t getting covered.

📻 WBEZ Chicago to Colorado Public Radio: Hold my beer.

🎤 The Denver Post’s Noelle Phillips hosted another session of The Back Story Thursday at The Denver Press Club, this time with Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus where they talked about his investigation into how COVID-19 ripped through Colorado’s nursing homes. Phillips says The Back Story is “a great opportunity to learn from the best in Colorado journalism.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. (If you would like to join CMP and Grasslands in underwriting this newsletter, hit me up.) Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.