Patterico's Pontifications

3/17/2014

L.A. Times Reporter Is Fired; Was Previously Criticized by Patterico for Repeated False Characterizations in DNA Articles

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 6:05 pm

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.

47 Responses to “L.A. Times Reporter Is Fired; Was Previously Criticized by Patterico for Repeated False Characterizations in DNA Articles”

  1. This man should be drummed out of the “profession” of journalism.

    Also, could he not find some sympathetic member of the California Bar who’d assist him with a legal name change? He certainly has adequate grounds. (Warning: That link is safe for work but disturbing.)

    Beldar (fa637a)

  2. It really makes you wonder who was “using” who in developing these Occidental Rape agenda pieces for the Times.

    elissa (3a8451)

  3. Beldar wrote:

    This man should be drummed out of the “profession” of journalism.

    Oh, he pretty much has been; despite our esteemed host’s derision of the paper, The Los Angeles Times is one of the plum jobs for print reporters, and if you get fired there for cause, you’re pretty much toast.

    Maybe he can join Jason Leopold on Marc Ash’s truthout.org? :) That’s about all that’s left for him.

    The journalist Dana (af9ec3)

  4. Maybe it’s a pseudonym, Beldar. He does seem to be an expert on inappropriate sexual relationships anyway.

    MikeK (cd7278)

  5. Well apparently not, what about this outfit he came from, the CIR;

    http://www.linkedin.com/pub/jason-felch/8/443/698

    narciso (3fec35)

  6. 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.

    Not necesssarily, or even likely.

    “Future articles” could mean articles that haven’t yet been published or written, and now won’t be.

    Reporters sometimes use months old information quotes in an article. Even years old, in obituaries, but then they usually note when the interview wsas givem

    Sammy Finkelman (cb261b)

  7. Felch means to say that he stopped collecting information from her after the relationship began, but still planned to use some of the information he had already collected from her in future articles.

    But, although her information remained in his notebook for future use, (and how could it not?) none of the articles that got published after the relationship began relied on anything she had told him before it began or after.

    Sammy Finkelman (cb261b)

  8. I think also maybe Felch is claiming the relationship began when he slept with her, but does not include the time he was courting her.

    Sammy Finkelman (cb261b)

  9. How do you know he was courting her Sammy? Was that in an article? Perhaps she was the one “courting” him to get her agenda out.

    elissa (3a8451)

  10. How this guy became an “investigative reporter” is a mystery. He listed the dates and degree from Boston College, but only “Journalism” and “Cal-Berkeley,” which I understand to mean he took a class. Then a “fellow” at the “Center for Investigative Reporting” and work on a book about antiquities fraud.

    But why would LAT fire him? For getting caught? It isn’t as if getting stories right has been important to them in the last couple of decades, despite all the lost subscribers.

    Estragon (ada867)

  11. But why would LAT fire him? For getting caught?

    Bingo, Estragon.

    felipe (6100bc)

  12. Elissa! I am surprised at you. Sammy isn’t meant to be taken literally, he could mean “any manufacturer of dairy products”.

    felipe (6100bc)

  13. They fired him for the whiff of bias. Imagine that.

    Kevin M (dbcba4)

  14. “courting”

    That still happens?

    Kevin M (dbcba4)

  15. It sounds pretty straightforward. The right way to have done it … he goes to his editors, tells them he’s developed a crush on his source, they put someone else on the story. No harm, no foul. It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. He tried to fool his bosses, a worse thing than putting out a compromised story.

    nk (dbc370)

  16. Well the problem is more complicated, his ‘source’ seems to have embellished the story, to make it more truthy,

    narciso (3fec35)

  17. Yes, that’s why he should have withdrawn (from the story). He could no longer assess the source’s “information” objectively or risk offending the source by double-checking it. The whiff of “bias” (juvenile snigger) had befuddled his professional judgment.

    nk (dbc370)

  18. Thankfully, I have never faced this as a lawyer. I know for sure, in Illinois you will be disbarred for sleeping with a client. I don’t know that you can save yourself by withdrawing from representation, even.

    nk (dbc370)

  19. “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information — in appearance as well as in fact.”

    Heh. Amazing the dude still believes the LA Times still has any credibility.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  20. 10. Comment by elissa (3a8451) — 3/17/2014 @ 7:01 pm

    How do you know he was courting her Sammy?

    He spent a lot of time talking to her before the relationship began. (She was a source.)

    It could have slowly segued into something a little bit more, and probably did.

    Was that in an article?

    No, but I am assuming there was a phase like that.

    Also, he may have thought long and hard about this, too.

    Perhaps she was the one “courting” him to get her agenda out.

    Yes, she might have been doing this more than him. Calling him up – ostensibly to give him soe more information.

    Sammy Finkelman (cb261b)

  21. Wait where does that leave the complaints against Barbara Avery, or the student in question, who was suspected in the assault, this doesn’t end the story,

    Maybe they thought the paper could free itself of liability, in a future lawsuit, but I don’t think so,

    narciso (3fec35)

  22. 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.

    For the love of God, can people please stop referring to the LA Times as “one of the nation’s great newspapers”? It is only as true as referring to Detroit as one of America’s great cities. Strictly past tense, baby, and you would probably have to go back 50 years for it to actually be true.

    JVW (9946b6)

  23. Patterico, I just bcc’d you on a letter to the editor about another one of our favorite blowhard columnists who just released a howler over the weekend.

    JVW (9946b6)

  24. Ah, so there’s a pattern.

    Former Conservative (6e026c)

  25. “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate”

    lol

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  26. the Hector Tobar review of Lisa Bloom’s strawman torching, was classically insane.

    narciso (3fec35)

  27. This poor reporter must be wondering what the heck he did wrong. Every reporter in D.C. is married to or sleeping with someone in the administration. He was just proving his mettle.

    Regardless, the Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics which is given lip service during GOP administrations and ignored when Dems hold power.

    It is funny, in a way, that now the press has pretty much admitted it is the propaganda wing of the Democrat Party, it still wonders why no one reads or watches. Of course the simple answer is even fellow travelers have no use for stupid information.

    Ag80 (eb6ffa)

  28. TMI, Palomino, ‘goggles do nothing’ Colonel.

    narciso (3fec35)

  29. I know your name is Rita
    and your perfume’s smelling sweetah

    Colonel Haiku (0c88f6)

  30. Don’t screw teh pooch
    Obama will eat it

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  31. there’s a Gloria Allred connection, if it’s not clear, and Change.org, followed up,

    narciso (3fec35)

  32. I could say my only conclusion is that no one has ever seen “The Crucible,” or read the play and they don’t know what it was intended to express.

    My actual conclusion is that college students are not receiving any sort of real education in liberal arts.

    Ag80 (eb6ffa)

  33. If you start reading the various information on line, you start to see that there was a very broad definition of rape, which included making someone feel uncomfortable. Certainly the unreported “27 alleged sexual assaults” included such.

    AZ Bob (533fbc)

  34. “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information

    LOLOLOLOLOL

    Dustin (a22163)

  35. JVW wrote:

    For the love of God, can people please stop referring to the LA Times as “one of the nation’s great newspapers”? It is only as true as referring to Detroit as one of America’s great cities. Strictly past tense, baby, and you would probably have to go back 50 years for it to actually be true.

    Your statement assumes that the standard for being a great newspaper has remained where it was; it obviously has not. The Los Angeles Times is in good (?) company in its loss of quality, and, as far as I can see, there are only two great newspapers left: The New York Times (because it still does so much original reporting) and The Wall Street Journal, which is a specialty publication.

    And even they have problems, because they are, in the end, still 18th century technology. The Journal has figured out how to survive in the digital age, but that’s because its readers value its content, are (mostly) well-to-do, and actually will fork out $199 per year for a digital subscription.

    The journalist Dana (3e4784)

  36. the question goes beyond Felch, as to which degree is the Occidental matter a real thing, the presence of Gloria Allred in the first lawsuit, and Change.org, makes me wonder,

    narciso (3fec35)

  37. Clay Shirky, who promotes changes in journalism once referred to the old model as, paraphrasing;
    We buy trees from Canada, mash them into paper, spread ink all over them and pay a neighborhood kid to throw the results under the customer’s car.

    He doesn’t get it. It’s the content, stupid.

    Richard Aubrey (0605ef)

  38. FWIW. http://www.felch.org/ No, it’s not disgusting. It’s a genealogical site for the name Felch and its variants.

    nk (dbc370)

  39. “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information — in appearance as well as in fact.”

    So this is the excuse the Khalidi tape remains buried.

    Bill H (f9e4cd)

  40. Underground comix artist S. Clay Wilson once had a demon say: “I don’t just covet my neighbor’s ass, I felch my neighbor’s ass!”

    Rich Rostrom (00fcaf)

  41. The L.A. Times is maybe one of the greatest circulation newspapers.

    Sammy Finkelman (20c5cc)

  42. I’m extremely impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog.
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    bata (340037)

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