Considering Inaccurate Stories

Staying with a story until it’s right — even admitting the original was wrong — can be satisfying. Embarrassing, but satisfying.

Staying with a story until it’s right — even admitting the original was wrong — can be satisfying. Embarrassing, but satisfying, especially when seemingly reliable sources knew or should have known better.

Locally, The Enquirer did that after digging farther for numbers being tossed around in City Hall about the streetcar system.

Farther afield, NPR colleagues didn’t believe official versions of how two staffers died in an Afghan ambush. They learned how wrong and misleading the original versions — including theirs — were. 

The Enquirer’s original streetcar 2018 deficit story quickly blew up. Reporter Sharon Coolidge’s second story said, “The Cincinnati Bell Connector won’t run at a deficit next year.”

It was a classic case of not having all of the information available to the city and SORTA and, possibly, not knowing what was missing. Here’s how she began her turnabout:

“A budget request released earlier this week and reported on by The Enquirer was incomplete. It suggested funding woes, but a closer look shows that’s not the case. The Enquirer has spent two days since then sorting out streetcar math.”

I have no idea when Coolidge realized something was amiss in the data or her analysis, but here’s what she said, “The story published earlier this week, based on the limited amount of information available, said the streetcar budget is facing a nearly half-million dollar shortfall. That’s not the case.”

She said, “the documents on which the earlier story were based did not include tax incentive money that companies along the route contribute to the operating budget. That revenue is projected to come in at $531,000 next year.”

Instead of all of the information she needed, “there were memos and press releases but an overall lack of clarity. SORTA, which oversees streetcar operations and made the budget request, sent out written information that did not answer The Enquirer’s questions; officials there also did not consent to an interview. And the city simply said it was reviewing the budget request. So no conversation. And thus, confusion.”

I’m sympathetic. A reporter is always at the mercy of people who control needed information. If the reporter doesn’t know what’s missing, it falls into the infamous “unknown unknowns” abyss.

In a rare commentary, editor Peter Bhatia responded to streetcar supporters in an editor’s note that read: 

“The headline in print read, ‘Sinking ridership forces streetcar to seek money.’ The story indicated that the operation faced a shortfall of $474,530 and would require an influx of financial help in the coming year. 

“The story said the shortfall existed because ridership had fallen short of projections. Neither SORTA nor city officials would discuss the finances for this story in interviews. The story was based in large part on financial documents released by SORTA and the city.

“It became evident by Wednesday, however, that The Enquirer had not been given all relevant documents. In particular, the documents on which the story were based did not include tax incentive money that companies along the route contribute to the operating budget. 

“When this information is taken into account, the streetcar is projected to operate next year not with a deficit but with a $45,523 surplus.”

Then there were the headlines. As Bhatia wrote, “Our readers would have been better served if we made clearer at the time that the second story was corrective of the first.”

He might also have noted that the flawed story was all over page 1 but the correction was inside the paper. 

In Afghanistan, NPR asked what really happened when a Taliban ambush killed journalists David Gilkey and Zabihullah Tamanna recently.

“It’s a very different story from what we originally understood,” NPR said. “The two men were not the random victims of bad timing in a dangerous place, as initial reports indicated. Rather, the journalists’ convoy was specifically targeted by attackers who had been tipped off to the presence of Americans in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.”

So much for earlier, official versions of the attack.

More reporting by reporter Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva revealed new, disturbing details about how the two journalists were killed. “Tamanna did not die from a rocket-propelled-grenade attack, as originally reported. He was shot. This fact was suspected by other NPR journalists who saw his body shortly after the attack and is now confirmed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense. And unlike Gilkey, Tamanna did not suffer any burns, a fact that further casts doubt on the original story of a sudden, random attack by hand-launched explosives.”

Early accounts, based on information from the Afghan National Army, said Gilkey and Tamanna were killed by the Taliban, when their vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.”

This goes beyond the “fog of war.” It recalled months of lies by Americans after former NFL player and Ranger Pat Tillman died in Afghan combat — from friendly fire. 

NPR said an autopsy on Gilkey by U.S. military doctors added to the confusion. It noted the obvious burns but didn’t find any other injuries and determined that the burns killed him. 

NPR asked military doctors with years of combat trauma experience. “They said … with a rocket-propelled grenade, you would often see serious tissue or organ damage from a blast. Such wounds were not present.”

Bowman and Evstatieva called Baryalai Helali, a Defense Ministry spokesman, and got a different story: “Tamanna wasn’t killed by an RPG. He was shot, outside the vehicle. Helali had no explanation for how Tamanna got out of a Humvee, without any apparent injuries, if it had been attacked by an RPG with enough force to kill the person sitting next to him.”

Bowman and Evstatieva said that doesn’t make sense. “How could they both have died the same way, when their bodies looked so different?”

Sources in Afghanistan confirmed to NPR that Taliban fighters knew they were coming — were very happy about it, one source said — because they had been tipped off by someone at the governor’s palace that morning.

Bowman called the Taliban to ask. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed that Taliban forces carried out the attack but said the group had information indicating that American military troops were in the convoy, not journalists.

“This attack was not meant to target journalists, but [an] American caravan and American soldiers,” Mujahid said, adding, “If these journalists had informed us ... in advance about their visit to our area, we would have given them a safe route.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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