Earlier this year, I did an experiment to prove that the popular “Help a Reporter Out” was just a factory for producing cheesy quotes from pseudo-experts—where journalists cavorted and bartered with “sources” to generate stories that would get lots of web traffic. The New York Times was implicated, and its response says it all.
It quietly issued a correction to its embarrassing trend piece, but made no policy changes and did not disclose any of the practices behind the problem. (Same goes for the other outlets involved: Reuters, ABC News, Today and countless blogs.) They had featured me prominently despite the fact that my expertise was completely made up. Nobody fact-checked, nobody even bothered to Google me (or they would have seen that I had written a book about media manipulation).
Future exposure to such deceit could have been prevented by a simple ban on the service. To date, no media outlet that I know of has taken such a stance. In fact, the Times has dug in and defended using HARO (even as it removed the quotes from its story). As their spokesman said as part of a statement to The Observer at the time: “We have no written guideline that would say specifically to verify a source like these online ‘experts,’” but that they assume it was covered as part of their general policy. Except it clearly isn’t.
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