A Reporting Lapse, and What It Means for Journalism
When Thrillist published a story about a Portland burger joint, it went viral. But then a few journalists noticed a huge gap in the reporting. This is what it means for journalism.
By Scott Simone
You may have seen this around the Twittersphere already, but it’s still a great teachable moment for journalists.
The gist: An award-winning writer for Thrillist, Kevin Alexander, wrote a follow-up piece about his past work covering all things food on Nov. 16. After he named a Portland, Oregon, restaurant’s cheeseburger the best burger in America, the eatery, Stanich’s, shut down, overwhelmed, it would seem, with attention in the wake of Alexander’s no. 1 ranking.
While the viral article is a reflective, introspective piece focusing on Alexander’s own reporting and its potential negative effects on restaurants, it included a glossed-over paragraph near the end of the story. Many readers barely noticed it. Then a few keen-eyed fellow journalists caught it.
The graph deals with why the owner, Will Stanich, closed his restaurant for almost a year. “He asked me not to reveal the details of that story, but I can say that there were personal problems, the type of serious things that can happen with any family, and would’ve happened regardless of how crowded Stanich’s was, and that real life is always more complicated and messier than we want it to be.”
This information, again, was folded in, almost as an afterthought, following a lengthy examination of the factors that led to Stanich’s shuttering after it had been in business since 1949. Alexander suggests that, to some extent, Stanich simply buckled under the pressure of being in the national spotlight.
The problem? A piece published by Matthew Singer for Williamette Week dove into the same subject, and he found, and reported out, a more sinister explanation.
“In fact, court records show that owner Steve Stanich's personal life had been spiraling into chaos long before his restaurant landed on the national radar,” Singer writes. “On April 18, 2014, Stanich was arrested for choking his then-wife in front of their then-teenage son at their home in Northeast Portland. Documents show his wife, then 57, had been a manager at Stanich's for 19 years before being diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Stanich pleaded no contest to charges of misdemeanor harassment and strangulation, and was sentenced to four years of probation.”
How can two pieces covering the same exact topic come to completely different conclusions? One word: reporting.
It’s a topic bemoaned the industry over. “There are a lot of writers,” the saying goes, “but too few reporters.”
A careful reading of Alexander’s Thrillist piece points to him having failed to meet basic reporting standards. And a good editor would have demanded to know more. What exactly was Alexander referring to when he brought up Stanich’s “family problems”? Why was it important to keep them a secret? What was the restaurant owner trying to hide? What could be learned from delving into Stanich’s past?
As Maya Kosoff, a reporter for Vanity Fair put it in a tweet, “Court filing details are all public record. It's not ’dirt,’ it's serious allegations of domestic violence, and it's journalistic malpractice not to disclose them and to frame the story as just something that can happen to a family.”
If Alexander had dug deeper, he might have been able to paint a fuller picture of Stanich’s problems, and perhaps absolve himself of his own anguished responsibility for “killing Stanich’s. Doing so certainly would have prevented journalism from getting another black eye.
What we’re left with is a new case study in what’s holding many reporters back: a lack of newsroom experience. It’s a place filled with high pressure, fast deadlines and hardened editors who don’t let glaring holes in reporting get past them. It’s where you can fail and learn from more experienced journalists, where your craft improves with every story.
There is no better training ground.