The Burrito Vendor: An Editor's Nightmare
In the Alibi's April 2-8 issue, I ran a story called "The Burrito Vendor" by Isaiah Montoya that contained some bad information.
A freelancer who'd just moved to New Mexico, Montoya contacted the Alibi in late 2008 and pitched a story on illegal immigration. He said he would follow an illegal immigrant and write about the day that person had, folding in statistics about undocumented workers in the United States. He produced clips of his previous work.
It was a decent pitch. Too often immigration is written about without reporters talking to immigrants. Plus, New Mexico is a border state.
Before he began writing the piece, I laid out the most basic rules of journalism in an e-mail to him. It felt a little silly, because he’s a journalist who’s been published in other newspapers. Even though he told me he’s been in the game for years, I stressed the fundamentals of accurate, ethical reporting, as I do with all of my writers. From the e-mail:
“Nothing personal, but here are some things I tell everyone I work with.
1) Direct quotes should be exact.
2) Use AP style.
3) Don't plagiarize.
4) Don't fabricate.
5) Use Spellcheck. Be 100 percent all your proper nouns are spelled correctly. Especially names.”
Once the story was finished, I held on to it for a couple of months. We have more news than space at the Alibi. Finally, when I decided to run the story, I contacted Montoya. I grilled him about statistics and the attribution of quotes, and I asked him to confirm information with his source.
We published the story, and as predicted, it prompted a lot of discussion. Commentors on alibi.com talked about immigration. (And the conversation degenerated, as they so often do online, to a variety of general topics.)
Questions about the story arose, which led me to contact the woman in the article.
I'm not disclosing her name here for obvious reasons. She said she didn't know a story had been written about her and that she let Montoya move into her home with her family when he came here from El Paso, but they had a falling out.
It is unethical to interview a source that doesn't know he or she is being interviewed for a newspaper, or anyone with whom you’ve had an undisclosed relationship.
Last week, she came to the Alibi offices carrying a card showing she’s a permanent resident on the United States, along with a Social Security card and a driver’s license. She also brought her pay stubs from the last six months. She said she doesn't sell burritos for a living and wanted the story removed from alibi.com.
To say I regret the error is an understatement. I have never, in my career as a journalist, been in a situation like this one. This is truly an ulcer-maker, and I hope it doesn't happen to anyone else.
Montoya says he stands by what he wrote. He won't be writing anything else for this paper.