Discover more from Popular Information
UPDATE: A case study in unethical journalism
On September 26, Popular Information reported that librarians in Charlotte County, Florida, public schools were instructed to remove books with LGBTQ characters from school and classroom libraries. This report was based on the following:
1. A document provided by Charlotte County public schools in response to a public records request, which memorialized guidance given to school librarians by Charlotte County Superintendent Mark Vianello and the school board's attorney, Michael McKinley. According to the document, librarians were told to remove books in K-12 libraries that had any LGBTQ characters.
2. Popular Information contacted Charlotte County school district spokesperson Claudette Smith and asked if the guidance was "still valid" and whether "all books with LGBTQ characters… have been removed from Charlotte County schools." In a lengthy response, Smith defended the guidance and said it was necessary "to ensure compliance with state law and state board rule." (According to lawyers for the DeSantis administration, however, these laws and rules do not apply to library books.) At no point did Smith say the guidance had been altered or that books with LGBTQ characters were available in any schools.
After Popular Informatino's report was published at 6:30 AM, it circulated rapidly on social media. At 2:15 PM, Smith contacted Popular Information again and said that, "[b]ooks, including LBGTQ characters and themes, are available in high school media centers." This claim was not included in Smith's original statement, but, at 3:30 PM, it was added as an update to the article.
Popular Information then obtained the logs of the books that were removed from Charlotte County high schools after the guidance was issued. The logs reveal that many books with LGBTQ characters were, in fact, removed from Charlotte County high school libraries just prior to the start of the school year. Popular Information asked Smith why these books were removed. Smith said she would look into it but never followed up with a response.
Popular Information's reporting was picked up widely by the state and national media, which confirmed the accuracy of the story.
The Associated Press:
Top officials at a Florida school district ordered the removal of all books and material containing LBGTQ+ characters and themes from classrooms and campus libraries, saying that was needed to conform to a state law backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that critics have dubbed “Don’t Say Gay"... The district later backed off a bit, allowing some exceptions for high school libraries.
The Tallahassee Democrat:
A Southwest Florida school district has removed books with LGBTQ characters and themes from its elementary and middle school libraries...Smith said books with LGBTQ characters and themes are being kept in high school libraries, backpedaling on the July document.
But ABC7 and NBC2 in Fort Myers, Florida, two television stations owned by Hearst Communications, presented a very different story to their audience. Reporter Samantha Serbin published an article that claimed she had "confirmed" that Popular Information's reporting was "grossly inaccurate." According to Serbin, only books that were "pornographic, sexually explicit or overall inappropriate" were removed. She quoted Smith, saying, "we have never ordered librarians to purge LGBTQ+ books."
All of this was directly contradicted by the guidance document and Smith's previous statements. But Serbin didn't mention any of that in her story.
Numerous versions of the story, which included screenshots of Popular Information's report, were broadcast on ABC7 and NBC2. Viewers were presented with allegations that Popular Information's story was "wildly inaccurate" and "false." Serbin never contacted Popular Information. Videos of these broadcasts were posted online along with the articles.
Efforts to contact Serbin were unsuccessful. On September 29, Popular Information contacted ABC7 and NBC2 News Director Tim Klutsarits and noted that Serbin's report — and her claims about Popular Information — were false. In response, Klutsarits said he "disagree[s]" with Popular Information, but "in our editorial discretion we have taken the story down." Klutsarits made no effort to substantively defend Serbin's report. Both Serbin's story and her video report are no longer available online.
On October 2, Popular Information contacted Klutsarits again and asked if he intended to correct the record for his station's broadcast and viewing audience. Klutsarits responded by saying he believed that Serbin's story was "a fair and accurate report of a public body’s statements regarding the removal of books from public school libraries, including its assertion and view that the claims in your Popular Information post that all school libraries are being stripped of books with LGBTQ+ themes were inaccurate."
The "basis" for these claims, Klutsarits said, was "that books with LGBTQ+ themes are available in high school libraries." This makes little sense. The district's questionable claim that some books with LGBTQ themes are available in high school libraries was included in Popular Information's report shortly after Smith first made it, and before Serbin published her report. "We stand behind the story," Klutsarits concluded.
Of course, deleting all traces of the story from the internet is the opposite of standing behind a story. Worse, the audience of ABC7 and NBC2 have been misinformed about what is occurring in their local school district. Anyone watching Serbin's report or reading it online would be under the false impression that books were not removed simply because they had LGBTQ characters. But, by the district's own admission, all books with LGBTQ characters were removed from K-8 libraries. And Popular Information's own reporting shows that many books with LGBTQ characters were removed from high school libraries.
NPR's former managing editor, Mark Memmott, explained why his newsroom has a policy against removing content from its website:
We are guided by a newsroom policy that says it is inappropriate to remove content from our Website. If a report is inaccurate, we will correct it and state why it has been altered. If relevant new information emerges, we will update or do a follow-up story.
But our content is a matter of public record and is part of our contract with our audience. To simply remove it from the archive diminishes transparency and trust and, in effect, erases history. This is not a practice engaged in by credible news organizations or in line with ethical journalism.
Philip Corbett, the New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards, explains why his paper does not simply delete stories:
We do make mistakes and it’s really important that we not just fix what was wrong but make it clear to readers that we made a mistake. This is the reason why we wouldn’t go in and just make something go away or unpublish something. We tell the reader what the right information is rather than making the wrong information or the story disappear.
Hearst's own Television News Policy is similar: "Hearst Television is committed to accuracy and transparency in reporting. When mistakes are identified, we seek to quickly and thoughtfully acknowledge and address errors. Stories published to our websites note when a correction has been made."
In this case, Hearst went in a very different direction.