Significant reporting errors at the Yale Daily News foreshadowed the fate of Liane Membis, the Wall Street Journal intern who was dismissed in late June for fabricating quotes. Those same errors cast doubt on the News’s investigation of Membis’s work at the paper, and contradict its claim that there is “no evidence” suggesting Membis invented or misreported information at the News.
In 2009, Membis—then a freshman—wrote an involved piece about Yale’s Marsh Botanic Garden, which later required an unusually lengthy correction that, until today, has gone unnoticed. (Due to several broken links—explained below—the note had languished in the paper’s content management system for “a couple years,” an editor told us.)
The note is brutal. Membis “inaccurately quoted” a Yale professor (attributing to him statements that do not resemble anything he said, the note makes clear), misdescribed several “well-maintained” greenhouses as “rickety,” and included numerous factual errors in the article.
At 187 words, the article’s correction is the longest the News has published in at least a decade, according to a review of News articles that were found to have contained “several” or “numerous” errors.
Timothy Nelson, the professor quoted by Membis, told IvyGate that “it seemed [Membis] was describing another place altogether.” (Full quote below.)
“I don’t want to imply that I thought she should have written with a ‘spin’ that was more favorable to the Marsh Botanical Garden or to the Yale administration,” Nelson wrote in a subsequent email, “only that our interviews did not seem to accurately inform her writing.”
“We were relieved that the editor of YDN took our objections seriously and quickly printed some specific corrections,” he said.
In an email sent around noon today, News editor-in-chief Max de la Bruyère admitted to IvyGate that the paper is currently discussing the same article as part of its investigation. (He would not say if these discussions were prompted by our inquiry, or if the article had been discussed during the paper’s initial investigation.)
The meat of the correction—“inaccurately quoting” people, inventing details with no correspondence to reality— contradicts de la Bruyère’s account of Membis’s work at the News:
We have investigated the work she did for the News so far as possible and have found no evidence that she fabricated quotes or information in her reporting for us.
On July 6, the News “reopened” its investigation (after the Huffington Post retracted an article of Membis’s) but did not recant its findings or explain its vague methodology.
We’ve already expressed skepticism about the entire investigation, but over the weekend IvyGate obtained new evidence that the News did not investigate Membis’s work very thoroughly, or at all, as de la Bruyère said it did.
A little background: when Membis wrote her article, the Yale Daily News‘s dealt with corrections by revising the article and linking to a different page, where the correction would be detailed. (Now the paper appends the correction to the article itself.) As de la Bruyère explained to IvyGate on Sunday, the paper’s current CMS broke a number of internal links when it was implemented, thereby severing a lot of articles from their respective corrections.
“Fixing those links is an ongoing process,” de la Bruyère said.
But until Sunday morning, when we asked the News for comment, Membis’s article remained unfixed. That means one of two things: the News did not investigate Membis’s work “so far as possible” (and so missed the correction, which was easy to do), or someone on its staff decided to leave the article as is: bearing a note that it had been corrected, but with no indication of what had been corrected, and why.
Our inquiry spurred a change of heart, in any case: thirty minutes after IvyGate contacted the paper, a staff member revised Membis’s article to emphasize the fact that it had been corrected, and substituted the correct link for the dead one. (Without, of course, actually responding to our email!)
Here’s a gif to illustrate the transformation:
After repeatedly stating that he had no further comment, de la Bruyère told IvyGate that the Membis investigation was on schedule to conclude “within a week.”
“The article you mention is one of those that we’re taking a particularly close look at right now,” he added, referring to Membis’s corrected article.
That raises the question of whether the News looked at it—closely or not—in the first place.
All of this suggests that the Yale Daily News did not thoroughly investigate the archive of Membis’s work at the paper. Otherwise its staff would not have waited for our email to correct Membis’s article, and its editor-in-chief would not have claimed there is “no evidence” (when there was ample evidence) that Membis misrepresented or misled in her reporting at the News.
FULL QUOTE FROM PROF. TIMOTHY NELSON:
I don’t have a transcript of our original interview, so I can’t compare my original words with her later presentation of them, except as corrected later by the YDN. I can say that both Eric Larson (the garden manager) and I were surprised by the negative narrative of the article, which bore little resemblance to our upbeat explanations of progress, support and plans during our interviews. The article depicted a sad run-down place, implying it was the result of administrative neglect, when in fact we both emphasized that there was tremendous interest on the part of the Yale administration, including a recently completed planning study that produced a 20-year Master Plan for development, construction of new research greenhouses and more. To us, it seemed she was describing another place altogether. We were relieved that the editor of YDN took our objections seriously and quickly printed some specific corrections.