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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Did Michelle Delio Fabricate Sources?

How MIT Technology Review came to publish stories that weren’t true.

  • May 12, 2005

On Monday, Wired News published an investigation by Adam Penenberg into the reporting of Michelle Delio, a prolific technology journalist who has written for Wired News, InfoWorld, and technologyreview.com.

In his report, Penenberg (a professor of journalism at New York University who famously exposed Stephan Glass, a serial fabricator of stories at The New Republic), said that he and his students examined 160 of the more than 700 stories Delio has written for Wired News. Of those 160 stories, 23 had a total of 40 sources which the investigation could not verify.

Wired News has responded to the investigation somewhat curiously. The editors note that most of Delio’s sources could, in fact, be found. They have not retracted the stories that contain unconfirmable sources. Instead, they have edited them, noting which sources could not be located. Their reasoning: that in most cases the sources are what journalists call “secondary” sources–that is, they functioned mainly to provide local color. In only 4 cases, Wired says, did stories depend entirely on unverifiable sources.

Delio (a former professional palm and tarot card reader, who was once the editor of Outlaw Biker magazine), insists that she is not a fabulist. She is only guilty, she pleads, of sloppy book-keeping. She says, “I don’t understand why my credibility and career is now hanging solely on finding minor sources that contributed color quotes to stories I filed months and years ago.” Delio argues that among hundreds of articles she wrote for Wired News, there “isn’t one story that contains fabricated news.”

The blogosphere has largely accepted the version of events that Delio and Wired News are jointly telling: the conventional wisdom on slashdot and elsewhere has quickly become that unconfirmable sources are not the same as fabricated sources. Besides, every one makes mistakes.

What’s the truth?

I have a personal interest in this story. Wired News began its investigation after I retracted a story on technologyreview.com by Michelle Delio about Carly Fiorina, then Hewlett-Packard’s Chief Executive. The story was ostensibly narrated by an retired H-P researcher from Hungary called “G.S.”–and was “told to” Delio. (For what it’s worth, I personally commissioned the story after reading an earlier Delio story that featured G.S.) H-P complained that no person who matched the description of G.S. had ever worked at the company. Brad King, technologyreview.com’s editor, asked Delio for contact information for the source. She only had an email. King and I pinged G.S., but he never responded. King fact-checked the biographical information that Delio provided using the G.S.’s “real” name: none of the professional societies with which G.S. was notionally associated had ever heard of him. For two weeks King asked Delio for some corroborating information about her Hungarian. She never provided any. We removed the story on March 18th.

Delio said that G.S. had deceived her: he had falsely described himself as a retired H-P engineer. These things happen sometimes, she implied.

I was unconvinced. Immediately afterwards, Technology Review commissioned its own investigation of the 10 stories that Delio wrote for technologyreview.com between December 16, 2004, and March 7, 2005. The investigation was conducted by Susan Rasky, who teaches journalism at the UC Berkeley. In interests of transparency and accountability, we published the report online on April 20th.

The upshot? Of the 10 stories Delio wrote for technologyreview.com, only 3 contained sources whose existence could be verified. Of the 7 stories with sources Rasky could not confirm, in one case Delio admitted that she manufactured a quotation, and in another case the source convincingly insisted he had spoken to Delio about another subject. The remaining 5 stories include 2 stories using the infamous “G.S.,” as well as other, unlocatable people.

As journalists, if we have any useful function at all, it is to represent the facts of the world as we find them–the rest is intellectual theater. Delio and Wired News are, in my opinion, sheltering behind a problem in logic: it is almost impossible to prove a negative. Put another way, Technology Review would have to speak to every human on earth to prove that Delio’s suspicious sources do not exist. But another logical rule, the law of parsimony, tells us the simpler explanation is that Delio made stuff up.

This is serious stuff. We chose to remove all of Michelle Delio’s stories from technologyreview.com–including the three stories which proved accurate. I do not want to publish a journalist whom I am reasonably sure is a fabricator.

For more, read Gelf Magazine’s thorough, riveting account of the Delio affair. Technorati tag:

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