L.A. Times Reporter Is Fired; Was Previously Criticized by Patterico for Repeated False Characterizations in DNA Articles
The L.A. Times has fired a writer, ostensibly for a combination of extreme sloppiness in a front page story, combined with a rather severe ethical breach. (H/t “Former Conservative.”) First, the extraordinary sloppiness completely undermining a front-page article:
A front-page article in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 7, 2013, was incorrect in reporting that Occidental College failed to disclose 27 alleged sexual assaults that occurred in 2012.
The article (“College shelved more assault reports”) dealt with Occidental’s obligations under the federal Clery Act, which requires schools to publish statistics annually on reported crime on or near campus.
Occidental representatives approached The Times early this month to seek a correction. Documents reviewed by The Times this week show that the 27 incidents did not fall under the law’s disclosure requirements for a variety of reasons.
Some were not sexual assaults as defined by the Clery Act. Rather, they involved sexual harassment, inappropriate text messages or other conduct not covered by the act. Other alleged incidents were not reported because they occurred off-campus, beyond the boundaries that Occidental determined were covered by the act. Some occurred in 2011, and the college accounted for them that year.
Subsequent Times articles published Dec. 20 in the LATExtra section and Jan. 23 in Section A repeated the original error regarding the alleged underreporting of sexual assaults.
The Times regrets the errors in the articles.
That’s the sloppiness. Here’s the ethical breach: Felch failed to tell employers that he was sleeping with a source:
Separately, as they began looking into the complaint, Times editors learned from the author of the articles, staff writer Jason Felch, that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with someone who was a source for the Dec. 7 story and others Felch had written about Occidental’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Felch acknowledged that after the relationship ended, he continued to use the person as a source for future articles.
Times Editor Davan Maharaj dismissed Felch on Friday. Maharaj said the inappropriate relationship with a source and the failure to disclose it earlier constituted “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.”
He added: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information — in appearance as well as in fact.”
If the name “Jason Felch” rings a bell: it should. Felch, along with Maura Dolan, authored a series of misleading articles about DNA in the L.A. Times. I contacted a statistics expert who said Felch and Dolan had mischaracterized the mathematical argument — a distortion that lay at the very heart of the front-page articles. I summarized all this in my L.A. Times Year in Review for 2008:
DISTORTIONS IN THE EDITORS’ JIHAD AGAINST DNA EVIDENCE
All year, the paper’s editors have been engaged in a holy war against the use of DNA in criminal cases. It started in May, when the newspaper ran an article about statistical probability in cold hit DNA cases, and it was immediately clear that some of the assertions didn’t make sense.
The editors don’t seem to like DNA when it’s used to convict.
For one thing, the article seemed to assert that larger databases made cold hits less reliable, when it would seem that the opposite would be true — at least in cases where the search revealed only one hit. A statistics professor named David Kaye agreed with me on that point. In addition, he told me, the article had falsely portrayed an anti-prosecution view of the statistical question as the consensus view — when, in fact, there is a competing view more favored by peer-reviewed articles. (The author of the L.A. Times article wrote me to claim that he had acknowledged there is a lack of unanimity of opinion, but the article didn’t clearly express this.)
But the biggest error was a flat-out statistical misstatement in the article. Professor Eugene Volokh outlined the problem. I drafted a letter to the article’s authors, and ultimately sent this e-mail about the misstatement. Then I noticed yet another error in the article, again having less to do with the math, and more to do with how the math was expressed in English. Of the three errors I identified, the paper corrected only a trivial arithmetical error, leaving the more significant misstatements standing.
The editors denied they’d made a misstatement, even though they admitted that it would be wrong to make a different statement that my readers overwhelmingly agreed was identical.
Although editors denied that they had described the statistics incorrectly, they did start describing them correctly — which I took as a silent concession that I was right.
But true vindication came when a statistics expert — one whom the paper had previously quoted as an expert — claimed in a scholarly article that the paper had “mischaracterized” the statistic that I had complained about. I once again wrote the Readers’ Representative, citing the expert’s opinion. She didn’t give me the courtesy of a reply.
A second DNA kerfuffle began when the paper ran a front-page story portraying certain matches in an Arizona database as shocking. Why, the paper suggested, the results defied the laws of statistics! Only on the back pages were readers told that most of the matches “were to be expected statistically.” One of the authors of “Freakonomics” later pronounced himself surprised that the matches were largely to be expected; apparently, like many readers, he had been misled by the article’s initial spin.
A local jury freed a clearly guilty man accused of rape; the foreman was heard expressing concerns about the case based on “recent controversies” about DNA — a clear reference to the L.A. Times‘s misleading series of articles.
In discussing a technique called familial searching, the paper did its usual shtick with DNA: it played up phantom privacy concerns, and buried the fact that the technique has been used to free wrongly convicted individuals.
Follow the links. The stories I criticized were by the now-fired Jason Felch, along with Maura Dolan. You’ll see that in some of the posts I actually exchanged emails with Felch in which he frustratingly and repeatedly failed, somehow, to see how he was misleading readers. The errors were serial distortions, many of which remained uncorrected after I notified the paper about them.
Felch now joins Chuck Philips as an L.A. Times reporter whom I repeatedly chastised for regularly misreporting the facts, who was later fired for journalistic malfeasance. Maybe the editors should try listening to critics for a change, rather than dismissing them out of hand. They might save themselves some embarrassment that way . . .
P.S. I think it’s interesting that Felch and the L.A. Times don’t seem to agree on whether he was sleeping with the source while using her as a source. Felch has issued a self-serving statement which says, among other things:
In late December, I began an inappropriate relationship with a confidential source that lasted several weeks. When the relationship began, I stopped relying upon the person as a source. None of the subsequent articles published in the LA Times relied upon the source.
Weeks ago, I voluntarily disclosed the relationship to my editors and cooperated with their investigation. On Friday, I was fired for creating the appearance of a conflict of interest. I accept full responsibility for what I did and regret the damage it has done to my family and my colleagues at one of the nation’s great newspapers.
Contrast the bolded language with the L.A. Times correction:
Felch acknowledged that after the relationship ended, he continued to use the person as a source for future articles.
Somebody is not telling the truth.
Once again, this should not have come as a shock to the editors. But somehow, it always does.