Joyce Terhaar

Joyce Terhaar: Reporters don’t believe or disbelieve, they verify

Elite runner Adriana Nelson on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, recounts her efforts to convince a young man not to commit suicide along a Folsom trail last week.
Elite runner Adriana Nelson on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, recounts her efforts to convince a young man not to commit suicide along a Folsom trail last week. rbenton@sacbee.com

It was a compelling television news story: A man out hiking with his son, off trail in Prefumo Canyon in California’s Central Coast, was attacked by a mountain lion. He was sincere as he told his story on camera. So much so, that you wanted to believe him.

He claimed he killed the predator by snapping its neck. But the scratches he showed looked more like they came from a tumble through stiff brush. And neck snapping? Who can snap the neck of a mountain lion?

That’s where newsrooms rely on reportorial skepticism to kick in, along with as much fact-checking as possible.

KSBY-TV is the NBC affiliate in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, and describes itself as the first local television station built on the Central Coast. KSBY reported the story over the weekend, and before too long it was circulating within the outdoorsman community.

The Sacramento Bee’s environmental reporter, Ryan Sabalow, saw the tale and on Monday called the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to check it out. Sabalow discovered that wardens tracked down the hiker to check his televised story and he quickly admitted he made it up.

Here’s what KSBY said in its correction: “KSBY News staffers attempted, but failed, to independently confirm his claims prior to the broadcast of this story.”

Verification is one of the most important things journalists do, and sometimes it’s tricky. What do you do when someone has a story to tell and there are no witnesses? Should a journalist just walk away?

Bee editors faced that question a week ago when City Editor Kevin Yamamura, an avid runner, saw a social media post and competitor.com coverage reporting that runner Adriana Nelson stopped a young man’s suicide attempt while she was on a training run in Folsom.

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Tony Bizjak picked up the reporting on Saturday, Feb. 6, with editor Tim Swanson. Like the tale from the hiker, there was no easy way to confirm the story. Nelson didn’t get the last name of the 26-year-old she said was sitting on a bridge ledge with a noose around his neck. Neither alerted authorities. She didn’t take him to a hospital or call an ambulance. And that photo of the noose on her social media post raised this question: Why did it look prop perfect?

Yet unlike the neck-snapping claim, this story seemed real, and it came from someone who is well known in the running community. Nelson is an elite marathon runner who was in Folsom training for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Bizjak reached Nelson to talk about her social media post. She told him she returned to the site with her mother to untie the noose from a pole on the bridge, and they threw it off the ledge where the man had been sitting. Bizjak also interviewed her husband, who said she called him right afterward, unnerved by the incident.

Bizjak called Nelson a second time and met her at the trail, interviewing her this third time on video, and walking through what happened. Bizjak noticed the rope was beneath the bridge where she said it had been thrown. The distance to the cars checked out. Suicide experts Bizjak interviewed thought the scenario sounded real. One expert told him that anyone can easily make a perfect noose by looking it up on the Internet – something Bizjak knew by that time, as it was one of the first facts he searched online.

Reporters are supposed to neither believe nor disbelieve. We try to verify.

Sacramento Bee reporter Tony Bizjak

We don’t like one-source stories at The Bee so this prompted several phone calls among top editors during the course of the weekend, and additional vetting of Nelson’s background. In addition, Bizjak called Folsom police and the city’s public information officer, who in turn checked with city parks officials, just to see if they were aware of the story and had heard anything else.

“Reporters are supposed to neither believe nor disbelieve. We try to verify,” Bizjak said of his reporting. “But some element (of the reporting) is our personal sense of the person. I decided I believed her.”

In addition, editors decided it was a news story worth pursuing and publishing given Nelson’s stature and that the Olympic Trials were scheduled to be held Saturday in Los Angeles.

Managing Editor Scott Lebar also wanted the story to offer a teaching moment. So Bizjak talked with Alex Filippelli, manager of crisis mental health programs at the Gender Health Center in Sacramento, and Debra Moore, a Sacramento psychologist, and Liseanne Wick, director of suicide prevention and crisis services at Wellspace Health in Sacramento.

Bizjak focused about half the story on tips from the experts, should anyone face a situation in which someone is trying to commit suicide. Mostly, he wrote, it’s about talking and making a human connection, letting someone know their life matters. Given that, Nelson’s husband said, “I couldn’t think of a better person to be there at that time but Adriana.”

On a hiking trail in Central California, one man says he fought a mountain lion with his bare hands, and killed it. On a trail in Folsom, a woman says she talked down a would-be suicide and it felt “better than anything I have achieved in my career.”

Just on the face of it – without the additional reporting – whom would you believe?

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