Notice: If You Make Surprising Claims, We May Check Them

Friday, January 11, 2019, 7:35 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher of ELi

ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols asked me to take time today to explain why we made the decision to publish an Ask ELi column reproducing and investigating a “regular person’s” remarks on Facebook. The person in question (who I’ll call PIQ for short) is upset with us for having done so, and a couple of people have joined him in his upset.

I’ll get to the details in a moment, but in case you’re busy and don’t have time to read those, I’m going to cut to the chase:

We are East Lansing’s public service news organization. If you make a surprising, significant claim about East Lansing in public, and it grows legs, odds are good we are going to look into it and report what we find. We won’t use your name unless you are a public figure, but we will look into what you’re saying. We may say you’re wrong.

We’ve done this before, and we’ll do it again. For example, we did it when someone was circulating a fake abduction story that claimed that “Arab men” are abducting young women near MSU’s campus.

If you don’t like that we might do this, then don’t circulate surprising, significant claims around here. It’s that simple.

Now the details of PIQ’s case:

PIQ recently made the claim on Facebook that MSU is going out of the dorm business and that so are other universities around the nation. PIQ insisted on it, and an ELi reader wrote it and asked us if we could find out if it is true.

If PIQ’s claim were true, the implication for East Lansing (our news beat) could be significant.

It would mean that MSU would no longer be providing a type of housing – dorm rooms with cafeteria plans – that is only really available on campus, and what’s developed on campus in terms of housing impacts what is developed off campus.

It would also mean that MSU might no longer be engaging students from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and life experiences in the kinds of socializing programs that help young people here adjust to adult life in our community.

Like a lot of questions readers submit to us, this was easy for us to check. That’s because, after four years of being your public service local news organization, we have a lot of contacts around here who respect our service and quickly respond to our questions.

In this case, I emailed the MSU Vice President who is in charge of residence life issues like this, and he promptly responded. I produced a column based on that response, adding some relevant information I had gathered about major off-campus apartment projects that are imitating some aspects of campus housing.

As editor, Ann checked my work, deleted two paragraphs she decided were not really on-topic (about national controversies regarding the economics of dorms), and published it.

We didn’t reproduce PIQ’s real name in the process. Why not? As a “regular person” (not a public official, developer, etc.), he’s not the story. His claims are.

Surely PIQ understood his claims might be a big deal; he was making them in what amounts to a public forum (this was not a closed discussion group) and he was specifically positioning himself as right about something of significant public interest.

PIQ and his backers have now suggested maybe we’re guilty of journalistic malpractice because we reproduced his remarks and investigated the veracity of them.

Ann and I have talked this over, twice, and twice concluded the same thing: In this case, we were doing our job for this community, and doing it well.

We understand PIQ may now feel a little foolish. In the future, if he or you wants to know if something is true before making a strong public claim, he or you can always contact us and ask us to try to find out.

Note that our online contact page allows you to submit a question anonymously. But you should also know we never reproduce the name of a person asking us to investigate something, so it’s safe to use your real name and email address, and doing so also allows us to follow up with you to make sure we understand your question.

We have provided “Ask ELi” service now for lots of readers, and we’re happy we can keep doing it throughout 2019, because our readers stepped up and helped us raise our 2019 budget. Thanks again to our supporters! If you haven’t pitched in, you can do so today.


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