I like Neon Tommy. I really do.
I’ve admired its coverage (often jealously) for its originality, depth and thoroughness. During the mayoral election, the digital publication, housed in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, produced several interesting and important stories. And when I wrote for Neon Tommy, I always received thoughtful, critical and valuable feedback from my editors. Neon Tommy has gained a well-deserved reputation throughout the city as a trusted news source, a notoriety that is particularly impressive for an emerging publication.
But as an editor and reporter for the Daily Trojan for the past year and a half, Neon Tommy has also been a cause of constant frustration.
This festering irritation reached its peak Monday while I was waiting in line for a cup of coffee. I was reading a brief Neon Tommy had just posted on Twitter about sanctions USC imposed on The Row after eight people were transported in ambulances last weekend, a story I’d been helping to report for our paper.
Much of the original story was not sourced and the parts that were relied on unnamed sources with little or no information about the sources’ identities. Moreover, the lede, unattributed, seemed to seriously conflate correlation and causation. And when the official statements emerged later that evening, this proved to be the case.
One might say that with an attribution such as “a few sources and Facebook friends,” it should have been hard to take the report credibly. Still, waiting in line for my coffee, I was ready to chuck my phone at the cash register. I was fuming.
Again, Neon Tommy had been first to post original reporting about a USC-related news story, but one that was seemingly based more on hearsay than credible information. Some might wonder why I find it fair to devote an entire column to just one story, but it’s indicative of a larger trend.
Most everything Neon Tommy posted yesterday, we at the Daily Trojan had on background from multiple sources early that morning. But, given the sensitivity of the story, we held back until we had sources willing to go on the record.
When I replied to Neon Tommy’s original tweet asking if the publication had any official USC sources, this was the response: “@danielrothberg: other media outlets are working on the story as well, our sources are confidential. Thanks for the tweet!”
No answer to my question, of course, since Neon Tommy’s sources were confidential, which, of course, journalism typically avoids because it prompts questions such as the one I asked. But to not even identify the confidential sources by an informational descriptor, such as “USC officials,” is an entirely different thing.
“Facebook friends” could be anyone. “Sources” could be anyone.
Again, I want to repeat the sentiment at top. I like Neon Tommy. I really do. And what I like most of all about Neon Tommy is that it gives the Daily Trojan a competitor. And in my opinion, a competitor only makes both publications better. There is a lot the Daily Trojan does wrong that Neon Tommy does right, especially when it comes to online production and utilizing emerging communication technologies. And there is plenty to criticize about the Daily Trojan; I often think we would benefit from a public editor of our own.
But, from time to time, it’s unnerving to compete with an organization that is so motivated by a web-first mentality that, in order to be first, it is willing to rely on unconfirmed information from unnamed, unidentifiable sources.
It should be noted that Neon Tommy was aware of some of the flaws in its story, as the post was tweaked and edited until an entirely different post was published later that day. In addition to changing the sourcing, Neon Tommy changed the name of the Kappa Sigma fraternity after incorrectly referring to it “Sigma Kappa,” a sorority that has no chapter at USC.
Yet, readers would never know that from the post, as there is no editor’s note providing information about what has been corrected or changed, something industry standards would call for.
The Society of Professional Journalists, in its Code of Ethics, calls for news organizations to “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” The New York Times, for example, makes it policy to correct online content at the end of each post and list the revised posts on its corrections page.
One of the larger revisions was removing a photo of a Loyola Marymount University student, who is reportedly in critical condition after falling off a table at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party last week. Though Neon Tommy felt comfortable naming the student, including a photo of her and citing one of her social media accounts, its sources for identifying her appeared to have no authority or official capacity to do so. At one point during the day, the post simply cited her “Facebook friends” and “various campus sources.”
Were these “Facebook friends” at the party with her? What kind of campus sources? Campus sources from LMU or USC? Students or faculty? And how were these campus sources able to confirm that it had been her at the party?
After all, representatives from the Los Angles Police Department, USC’s Dept. of Public Safety and California Hospital told the Daily Trojan they were unable to release or confirm her identity.
Later, Neon Tommy replaced the victim’s photo and removed the link to her social media. No note was ever made denoting these removals or the other revisions in the story. The only addendum to the post reads: “*This is an updated version from an earlier report.”
Perhaps what’s most unnerving is that this occurs in a publication that, unlike the Daily Trojan, gets its oversight directly from USC’s school of journalism.
I understand that Neon Tommy is part of a learning process and mistakes are to be expected, as is the case with any publication. Yet, there is no learning and no process if mistakes aren’t contemplated, acknowledged and, well, learned from.
It’s good to be confident, and criticism alone should never serve as the litmus test for backpedaling from a report. But when an update or revision is made, it should be noted. When journalists make mistakes, they run corrections (or, in serious cases, retractions). They don’t bury the truth, an effort that runs completely contrary to the endeavor of journalism in the first place.
I thought about not writing this column, given the increasingly aggressive (and completely out-of-line) critiques that commenters have posted on Neon Tommy’s coverage.
But then I saw that Neon Tommy tweeted this late Monday night: “CBS News credits @neontommy for breaking the story on LMU student seriously injured at #USC Frat Row party cbsloc.al/1bT2GID.”
And I wanted to throw my phone against the wall all over again.
Daniel Rothberg is a junior majoring in political science. He is a Special Projects Editor, and a former Managing Editor and News Editor. His column “21st Century Fears” runs Thursdays.
Nick Cimarusti’s column “#trending” will run in tomorrow’s edition.
Follow Daniel on Twitter @danielrothberg