FROM THE EDITOR: Beef plant ‘news’ offers key lessons

Farm Forum

Covering the news from Northern Beef Packers has not been easy over the years, but Thursday might have been the most bizarre reporting day we’ve experienced.

It amounted to eight hours chasing tails, but at the very least provides a good lesson in journalism and how we go about reporting news.

Early in the morning, KSFY television reported on its website that Northern Beef CEO and President David Palmer had told the station he had resigned.

Our newsroom was shocked, but not surprised. After the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off 260 workers, we expected more news.

But when reporter Jeff Natalie-Lees called Palmer, he denied that report and cut the call short. Beef plant general partner Oshik Song also denied that Palmer’s title or duties had changed.

Now we were stuck. The “news” was already out there from the other source, but our first-hand reporting contradicted that story.

It was clear there was either a significant mistake being made somewhere, or someone was not being truthful.

We published on our site an item headlined “Report: Beef plant CEO resigns.” The wording changed here and there, but that was the crux.

Our story began, “KSFY television is reporting that Northern Beef Packers President and CEO David Palmer has resigned.” We linked back to their story.

The second sentence read, in essence, “When contacted by the American News minutes ago, Palmer denied the report.”

For readers, it had to have been confusing. Believe me, it was confusing in the newsroom.

It highlights a distinct nuance in reporting that may not be apparent to most readers.

At no point did the American News say “The beef plant CEO has resigned.” We did not have that fact confirmed to our satisfaction.

All we could do, as the go-to source of news for this region, was point readers to another source’s report, and cite their story as a start.

In this case, that story turned out to be wrong.

The day unfolded almost comically, with each site — ours and KSFY’s — offering incremental updating, sometimes seemingly based on the other site’s latest report.

We stuck by our standards, which was to continue to explain the denials we gathered, and continued trying to verify.

By day’s end, KSFY walked back its earlier report, saying that though Palmer had told the station in the morning he had resigned, that that wasn’t true, but no reason was given for the about-face.

I have heard some theories since then, some plausible, some far-fetched, but none of them useful or accurate enough to report.

On Wednesday, we were behind a competitor by a few minutes on news about layoffs at the beef plant. While we were verifying two anonymous employee reports of layoffs, another TV station was running with anonymous sources.

We do not use anonymous sources except under the most extreme circumstances. Our standard is to verify, on the record.

If we have to choose between being first and being accurate, we will pick the latter option every time.

Of course, the true goal is first and accurate.

With news like Thursday’s “did he or didn’t he?” resignation, that’s easier said than done.

A new day for Deb

Congratulations to our good friend and longtime sports reporter Deb Smith, enjoying her Monday paper this morning, and maybe being surprised for the first time because she doesn’t know what’s in it!

Deb retired from the American News last week. She was a pleasure to work with, and we will miss her in our newsroom.