Magazine article American Journalism Review

Lost in the Woods: How the Mainstream Media Too Often Dropped Sourcing Standards and Blindly Followed the Lead of the Tabs and Entertainment Web Sites during the Tiger Woods Extravaganza

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Lost in the Woods: How the Mainstream Media Too Often Dropped Sourcing Standards and Blindly Followed the Lead of the Tabs and Entertainment Web Sites during the Tiger Woods Extravaganza

Article excerpt

On December 6, the British tabloid News of the World published a sensational story about the unfolding Tiger Woods scandal. Headlined "Tiger Had Me in the Rough," the article was an exclusive interview with Mindy Lawton, a 33-year-old restaurant manager from Florida who described having "rough" sex with the golfing great during an affair conducted while Woods' wife was pregnant.

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The story provided copious and intimate details, including what kind of omelet Woods likes for breakfast. But the News' reporting was suspect on several levels. For one thing, the newspaper offered no independent evidence that might have corroborated Lawton's account--no incriminating text messages, no e-mails or voicemails from Woods to Lawton. Nor did the story cite a single eyewitness who could attest to even incidental elements, such as Lawton's claim that Woods had visited her restaurant with his family. And, of course, there was no comment from the other party allegedly involved in the relationship, Woods.

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Most suspicious were some of Lawton's direct quotes; she referred to Woods as a "sportsman" and a parking lot as a "car park," British locutions unlikely to have been uttered by a Florida restaurant manager. It didn't help the story's credibility that it was published by the News of the World, one of Britain's racier tabloids, which often pays sources for stories. (The paper did not respond to a request for comment about the story.)

Yet none of it seemed to matter. Within hours of publication, Lawton's name was flying around the Internet, landing not just on blogs and gossip sites that have never made any claim to journalistic integrity but in mainstream media outlets that do. The Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others, eagerly picked up the News' account, as did NBC's "Today" Show. Dozens more publications cited no source at all in recounting what Lawton had to say. None of the outlets that picked up the story appears to have spent much effort asking a fundamental question about it: Was it true?

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Perhaps it didn't matter. By then, the news media was in full frenzy over Woods' philandering, and Lawton's tawdry tale fit with other "revelations" that were emerging almost hourly. In all, 18 women eventually came forward (or were identified by others) as alleged mistresses of the golfer.

(Comedian Andy Borowitz captured the flavor of the coverage with this dead-on dispatch on the online Borowitz Report: "In one of the largest mass demonstrations in recent history, over one million women claiming to have had sexual liaisons with Tiger Woods marched on Washington today.")

With few exceptions, all of the purported witnesses were treated with the same credulousness by the news media as Mindy Lawton.

There's no question that the news media got the direction of the Tiger Woods story right; Woods himself confirmed its hazy outlines a few days after the National Enquirer broke the story of his relationship with a New York event planner, Rachel Uchitel. In two brief and vaguely worded postings on his Web site, he acknowledged unspecified "transgressions" and "infidelity," thereby shattering his carefully crafted image as an upstanding family man. As some of his sponsors headed for cover, Woods took an indefinite hiatus from golf to sort out his personal life.

That, at least, is what is known for certain. But almost every other widely reported aspect of Tiger's tale rests on a wobbly foundation, unsupported by on-the-record sourcing, official documentation or direct observation--that is, the methods that journalists are supposed to employ to separate fact from speculation and substance from gossip. Much of what was reported relied instead on supposition, guesswork and innuendo, often sourced back to problematic stories like the News of the World's Lawton story or online reports of dubious provenance. …

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