On my frustration with Neon Tommy

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

13 replies
  1. Uncle Bill
    Uncle Bill says:

    Daniel. This is a rather exceptional and emotional eruption. You have embarked on an obsessive nit picking adventure to no visible good end. The underlying issue here is if Neon Tommy did or did not provide the public with accurate or with misleading facts. The weight of the evidence is on the side of Neon Tommy even if one accepts all of your nit pick criticisms. So what’s the point? By your own words you express both envy and jealousy. — two unhealthy emotions. Is Neon Tommy perfect? I don’t think so. Neither is the DT and if someone sat down to catalogue it’s history of errors, flaws, omissions and submissions to USC authority by the DT it might be a lifetime task. You are too smart a fellow, I think, to throw mud balls like this. Take a shower and get back to some real work. You are saying much more about yourself than about Neon Tommy in this rant of yours.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Daniel, this article is thoughtful, well-written and touches on the issue that I have found, over my years as a student at USC, to be the most fundamental problem with Neon Tommy. I agree with everything you have articulated in this article, except for one thing: Neon Tommy is NOT, and should not be considered, competition for the Daily Trojan. It is not a newspaper, it is not journalism; it is essentially a blog with the journalistic sensitivity of Perez Hilton. Quite frankly it’s insulting that Annenberg considers this their “voice of digital news.” I get that that’s their whole appeal: it’s digital, it’s quick, it’s like twitter. But despite how popular this type of “journalism” is becoming in our society, it will never substitute for real, quality journalism, which is what the Daily Trojan has proven itself to be. It has nothing to do with the digital versus print thing; no matter what media you use to issue news, if you call yourself a NEWS SOURCE and desire to be taken more seriously than Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, you need to be accountable for providing ACTUAL, credible information with sources, ESPECIALLY when dealing with an issue as sensitive as the recent hospitalization of students partying on the Row. Is Neon Tommy serious? Linking to the facebook page and showing the picture of a girl who has been hospitalized as a result of partying, without even a sliver of consideration for the consequences of this blatant invasion of privacy, puts their level of journalistic credibility and quality on par with that of Ann Coulter. The fact that Neon Tommy is even considered among the USC community as an alternative to the Daily Trojan makes me lose faith in people’s ability to distinguish between what is good news and what is straight-up garbage. No doubt there are talented individuals who work at Neon Tommy, but when Neon Tommy gets credit for being the first to break a news story WITHOUT ACTUALLY WRITING A COMPLETE STORY, it is reminiscent of the sad fact that people look to Fox News for “news.” The thing we have to remember is that Neon Tommy is able to break “news” so quickly for the exact same reason we should not rely on them for quality news: They do not do actual reporting. They rehash, repeat, and jump to conclusions. In the words of Nick Miller, we might say they “mamabird” the news. Of course it’s easy to get articles up quickly if you aren’t actually doing the digging around and reporting that a real paper does. But, look, Neon Tommy isn’t even trying to be a real newspaper. Let’s all stop pretending that they’re on par with the DT. To Daniel and all the people who work at at the DT, you should be proud of the work you do and the product you create every day. It’s maddening as hell that you don’t get more credit, but don’t even think for one second that Neon Tommy is your competition.

  3. Martin
    Martin says:

    Thus continues the never-ending war between traditional journalism and digital journalism. No matter how you spin it, the issue is a double-edged sword. Obviously every publication wants to be the first to break the story, some are just willing to sacrifice responsible reporting for speed.

    The Neon Tommy article may not have been grossly inaccurate in recounting the facts, but it’s clear that they don’t care about reporting responsibly. To respond to Jay below, journalists are supposed to follow a very particular code of ethics. Part of that code is reporting in a way that does not cause unnecessary turmoil to society or mislead the public. The girl’s identity was being kept private to try to protect her from any backlash she might encounter from being blamed for row sanctions. The original NT article also implied that the girl’s injury was the sole cause of the sanctions, when in fact the University has been several weeks in making this decision according to members of IFC.

    It’s perfectly understandable for Marc Cooper to defend his publication–although he did it in such a condescending tone that I wonder if he really gets Daniel’s points–but it demonstrates that Cooper is a particular kind of journalist: one for whom the details of the story come secondary to breaking the headline.

  4. Hmm...
    Hmm... says:

    Given my personal experiences working with both publications, I’ve come to expect the worst from both the Daily Trojan and Neon Tommy. However, this op-ed only confirms that out of the two, the DT is the worst student news publications at USC and in, dare I say, the nation.

    This is petty and unnecessary, reflecting poorly upon not only the writer, but the entire paper and its staff. Rothberg obviously doesn’t understand the spirit and true nature or journalism.

    Boo you Daily Trojan for making an unnecessary contest and publishing such a horribly emotionally-driven (rather than facts, ironically) article. Not that I like NT, but if I ever need campus related info, I’ll be sure to go there instead.

    Stick to the DPS roundups. Its all you’re good for.

  5. Marc Cooper, Director of Neon Tommy
    Marc Cooper, Director of Neon Tommy says:

    Dear Daniel,

    I’m sorry to be responding to your article so late but I have been en route to the Online News Association convention in Atlanta and couldn’t get to this right away.

    First of all, thank you for your initial kind words about Neon Tommy. We are proud of reporting that has won more than 35 SPJ and Los Angeles Press Club Awards in just the last three years.

    As the Director of Annenberg Digital News, the publisher of Neon Tommy, the buck stops with me. My student staff and contributors are welcome to respond to your piece as they wish, but please consider this, if you will, our official response.

    You raise serious allegations about the ethics and integrity of the reporting my staff conducted on the incidents that took place at The Row this past weekend and I feel obligated to give you a serious response.

    Your primary allegation seems to be that Neon Tommy published an article with dubious and undisclosed sources. In my capacity as director of ADN, and relying on 46 years of national and international journalism experience, I personally vetted the article in question. It is absolutely true that the sourcing on the piece was primarily anonymous and unspecific and I understand why you may not be comfortable with that. After careful probing of my reporters prior to posting, I was 100 percent satisfied that the information we had was correct. And it was. So while you were not in a position to evaluate the credibility of our confidential sources, I was. Given my decades of experience, I fully understand the risk of publishing anything that relies primarily on anonymous sources. In this case, I was very comfortable taking that risk because there was no risk. Through various sources, not just Facebook as you suggest, I knew that our reporters were on solid ground. If not, we would not have posted when we did.

    Certainly, a viewer can decide whether he or she is going to trust any piece of information regardless of the cited sources. We need go no further than the run-up to the war in Iraq to see how some of the most prestigious publications in United States where misled deliberately by officially cited sources that were blatantly lying.

    You also affirm that changes to the content of the story were made and not disclosed fully to the public. Daniel, one of the great innovations of reporting on the live web is that it is live. It is not static like a newspaper. It is common and ethical practice to “build out” a story on the web as it is developing. We posted only information of which we were sure. As more information was gathered we most certainly made minor tweaks here and there including some grammatical changes. It is also true that it is common web practice to footnote or disclose at the bottom of an article any significant changes that were made from one version to another in published content. We stated very clearly that we had updated the original version of the piece and when we published a second version of it some hours later we linked back to the original versions so one could see exactly how the story had evolved over several hours.

    I made the decision that swapping out one photo for another or de-linking from the subject’s Vine account were not significant enough to merit a detailed explanation. The basic facts of the story never changed. Our reporting was accurate from the onset. Yes we did transpose the name of the fraternity which you have noted and that is something that I consider to be a minor issue that does not reflect on the general integrity of the article.

    Daniel, you state that at the time of our publication some seven or eight hours before that of the Daily Trojan your news team had most of the information if not all the information that we had at time of our initial post. Your decision to not publish that information because you could not confirm it was the correct decision. But we could confirm it and that’s why we published.

    Indeed, while you state you were waiting for USC officials and different law enforcement agencies to confirm the facts for you, our reporters worked all of that evening to track down friends and family and eventually the father of the young lady who was at the center of the article with whom they spoke directly. After that conversation, we published another follow-up piece quoting the father directly and reconfirming all the information we originally went with earlier in the day.

    I am going to politely disagree with your assertion that good journalism shuns the use of anonymous sources. History proves that to be completely wrong. If journalists sat around and waited for officials to confirm controversial events we would’ve never heard of My Lai, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and assuredly nothing about the vast NSA surveillance program.

    In my classes I teach students how to cultivate confidential sources so that reporting can go beyond the surface and not just rely on what are often the misleading bromides or outright lies of authorities who are too often more interested in protecting their power and privilege rather than serving the public interest.

    We appreciate and applaud the fact that the Daily Trojan is a USC-centric publication. We think, in general, you are in a better position to report on campus related events than we are. When you do a great job of reporting on events at USC we are neither envious nor jealous. Indeed, we are pleased. It was Jeff Jarvis of CUNY who coined the motto we adhere to: “Do What You do Best and Link to the Rest.” We are very happy to direct readers to your fine reporting (or anybody else’s) on this or that event when we cannot adequately cover it. By doing so, we have more resources to concentrate on stories that we can do better. That is what modern, collaborative journalism should look like.

    That said, the most disturbing part of your essay is your assertion that Neon Tommy provides competition for the Daily Trojan. We do not see the world of journalism that way. Journalism has been evolving into a universe of networked and interlinked media and users in which the old notion of the scoop or some sort of walled-off exclusivity has been overcome, fortunately, by an understanding that all of us, together, including those formerly known as the audience, can cooperate to generate the greatest amount of reliable content.

    As the media outlets of the USC Annenberg School get ready for the transition to a new building and a new curriculum next fall, we are working feverishly to collaborate more closely with each other, sharing our content and resources and converging our newsrooms We invite the Daily Trojan to join us in this collaborative effort.

    Marc Cooper
    Associate Professor of Professional Practice
    Director, Annenberg Digital News

  6. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    I understand your main points and that this is more about journalism ethics than a personal attack. However, I think to publicly call out a fellow Trojan newspaper is uncalled for. Like Alan said, we are all in this together. I get you wanted to make your voice heard by leveraging a public platform but it just seems catty. If you really had a problem with it you should have emailed the supervisors.

  7. Concerned Parent
    Concerned Parent says:

    When is USC going to ban tables? They present a significant safety hazard to my daughter’s well-being as a USC student.

  8. Anon
    Anon says:

    I don’t understand. So you’re mad about accurate coverage that resulted in the University taking action to regulate parties? A girl was seriously injured and your issue is with NeonTommy?

    Where’s your head at boy?

  9. Jay
    Jay says:

    I don’t believe that you have an argument on the links to social media platforms. Anybody can look them up; including friends, family, employers and news media. Yes, this may can cause repercussions for the individual because she was identified, but it is not the responsibility of anyone to protect her anonymity. According to released reports, she was not the victim of someone else’s intentional harm. If you think the information was superfluous to the report then say that.

    Additionally, Neon Tommy has ever right to withhold their sources. Journalists do this all time to prevent backlash for their sources. Yes, it is always ideal for people to speak on the record,we both know that anyone Greek member who gave information by name would face severe repercussions. So is the answer to only use the released information? Absolutely not. If journalists did this, the public would never know the truth. If you question the journalistic integrity of Neon Tommy to find reliable sources, then come out in say it. Obviously, enough people trust them if network news station are looking to them for answers.

    And to turn the tables, who did you get the official letter from? You just said that the Daily Trojan obtained it. Let’s see transparency on both sides.

    Frankly, you sound more angry that Neon Tommy beat you on your own turf. It would have been beneficial for you to get the scoop on your own campus, but you win some, lose others. It just wasn’t your day. On to the next one.

    F.Y.I. Your rant about their article is probably getting them more views and getting people off your page.

  10. Alan Mittelstaedt
    Alan Mittelstaedt says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful critique, Daniel. We miss your excellent work at Neon Tommy. One question, what exactly was inaccurate about any of our coverage? My advice: let’s bury any differences we may have about Rules of Attribution, and together challenge the school administration, students, Greek Row and others to deal with realities of campus life in 2013. For example, wouldn’t you rather have had classes disrupted by boisterous tailgates than force all the pregaming to the Row? We are in it together, whether at the outstanding Daily Trojan or equally outstanding Neon Tommy, and shouldnt let Nikias et al off the hook Let’s talk more over coffee. We miss you. .

  11. mike
    mike says:

    Good article.

    The neon T. article was a joke. They used “Facebook” posts as a source, I mean come on..

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