On July 31, the Houston Chronicle published a front-page story with a provocative headline. “‘We’ve moved on’: Political anger after Harvey has eased,” it declared, adding: “Experts believe disaster response is unlikely to be a factor in November.”
It was a significant story by veteran reporter and Austin bureau chief Mike Ward. It asserted that Houston residents initially fed up with the uneven government response to Hurricane Harvey actually weren’t going to blame politicians after all. The story began with West Houston resident Betsy Scheer, whose anger had faded. She was going to vote Republican.
“My friends are mostly the same way now,” she was quoted as telling Ward.
But in the weeks after the story ran, questions were raised about the sourcing in Ward’s story. No one could find Betsy Scheer. And no one could find three others quoted in the story — Tran Ng, Martina Racelli and Jack Nito.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An update from the editor of the Houston Chronicle
The Chronicle spot-checked several other stories written by Ward. A pattern began to emerge: Alongside quotes from easy-to-find political figures, his stories were spiced with sparkling quotes from ordinary Texans, including a software engineer from Dallas, a businesswoman from Williamson County, a tea party activist.
Many of them could not be found, despite extensive searches in multiple databases by a newsroom researcher and more work by a private investigator.
Ward was confronted by Chronicle Executive Editor Nancy Barnes. Ward insisted that every person in his stories did exist and that they eventually would be found; he spent a week looking for them, but turned up nothing. Asked for notes used for his stories, Ward said he had destroyed them.
Barnes accepted Ward’s offer to resign.
Shortly after, Barnes asked me to examine all of Ward’s stories and to make every effort to find and verify the people named in them. What follows is what I found:
The review included 744 stories, from early August 2018 back to January 2014, when he was hired after a long career at the Austin American-Statesman. A team of three pulled out the names of 275 individuals who were presented as ordinary Texans and made every effort to find them.
Of the 275 people quoted, 122, or 44 percent, could not be found. Those 122 people appeared in 72 stories.
It’s impossible to prove that these people do not exist, only that with extensive research and digging, the team could not find them. And in this age of online records, including property ownership and court filings, almost everyone can be found quickly.
For comparison, the team checked the work of another reporter at a major out-of-state newspaper. Of eight people named in her stories, all eight were found easily.
The Chronicle also spot-checked nine recent stories from three of its reporters. Of 48 people named in those stories, 39 (81 percent) were found easily using one database, LexisNexis; eight names were so common further search would be required; one was not found due to a possible misspelling of the name.
Ward could not be reached to discuss the findings. He did not respond to numerous phone messages, emails or attempts to reach him through former colleagues.
Barnes, the Chronicle’s executive editor, had informed readers in September of concerns about sourcing in some of Ward’s stories and had promised further investigation. Unfortunately, she said, the further work was done without Ward’s cooperation and could not confirm the existence of more than 100 sources, despite extensive efforts to do so.
“The relationship between a newspaper and its readers is one of trust,” she said. “This investigation points to an egregious breach of that trust that is an offense to readers and journalists alike. We apologize to our readers, and to the Houston community.
“We will be correcting or retracting all of the affected stories in order to set the record straight to the best of our ability, as I promised when this was first brought to my attention.”
John Bridges, managing editor for the Austin American-Statesman, said the paper had taken a limited look at Ward’s work there, but would now go deeper.
“After the initial allegations, we conducted a preliminary review of Ward’s final years of work for the Statesman and did not find conclusive evidence of the kind of pattern uncovered by the Chronicle’s investigation,” he said. “But given the Chronicle’s new findings and the seriousness of these allegations, we are enlisting outside journalists to conduct further investigation into work that appeared in the Statesman.”
A thorough review
The Chronicle team ran each name in Ward’s stories through a variety of search engines that comb through records of property ownership, voter registration, hunting and fishing licenses, phone numbers and criminal records. They queried Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts, along with Google and several other commercial search engines.
The research included calls to local police departments, chambers of commerce and local Democratic and Republican officials. At a karate studio in the town of a woman quoted as a karate enthusiast, no one knew her. The search included a woman said to be an Austin resident and mother of three; she didn’t turn up on lists of registered voters and her name did not appear in any other database. At the bakery where she was quoted as being a customer, no one knew her.
Sometimes, hard-to-find sources did turn up. In one case, an individual was not listed on various databases, had no known phone number and did not own property. Eventually, the team found someone who knew him.
In all, the review found and verified 103 of the 275 names, just more than a third. For another 50 people named, Ward’s stories provided insufficient information to conduct searches. And 122 could not be found.
Some of the stories the Chronicle published under Ward’s byline rested in large part on the quotes from people whose existence could not be verified, throwing the veracity of entire stories into question.
For instance, the story the Chronicle published on July 31 depended heavily on the views of four people who weren’t found. Did Houston Republicans who suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey forgive GOP political leaders for lapses in government assistance?
Others in the piece, particularly university political scientists, could easily be found. They were cited for their professional opinions, not personal experiences.
It was not the only such story. A story published June 15 by Ward (“Outside Texas GOP convention, political parties are becoming less important”) detailed changing GOP attitudes toward President Donald Trump, from negative to positive. The story featured quotes from two people that set the tone for the story. Neither person could be located.
The previous day, June 14, the Chronicle ran a Ward story based on alleged interviews with three GOP and tea party activists; the team could find only one of them. On the 13th, the Chronicle featured a story by Ward that began and ended with meaningful quotes from two voters on the fate of the two parties in this fall’s elections. Neither of the voters could be located.
On May 4, the Chronicle ran a story by Ward about the upcoming convention of the National Rifle Association. The story was based on quotes from six people, none of whom could be found.
In March, Ward turned in a story he had been working on for some time, seeking to demonstrate that changing demographics in West Houston meant the 7th Congressional District, long a Republican stronghold, was now “up for grabs.” The story, published March 11, quoted 10 people; of those, six could not be verified.
The Chronicle will retract eight stories that depended heavily on characters who can’t be found and quotes that cannot be verified. It will correct other stories that included sources that can’t be verified but whose premise was not reliant on those sources.
Surprise in the newsroom
Chronicle editors who had worked most directly with Ward expressed shock and disbelief that he — or any reporter — would fabricate people and quotes.
“That’s not the Mike Ward I knew,” said John Gravois, a former editor in Austin for the Chronicle. “That Mike Ward was very meticulous, very careful, very old-school.”
Matt Schwartz, an assistant Metro editor, said that nothing in Ward’s stories “ever gave me pause, and I’m still stunned. I have a hard time believing that this happened.”
Vernon Loeb, who was managing editor of the Chronicle from 2014 until early this summer and who worked closely with Ward, also expressed shock.
“I don’t believe Mike Ward was the kind of journalist who would make people up,” he said. “I want to believe his assurances that he never made anybody up and that he, given time, can find these people.”
It’s a lesson stressed to new journalism students at the University of Texas at Austin. In one of their first classes, they are told to verify and retain the name, phone number and email address of every person they interview for a story.
“That’s what we expect of a beginning reporter,” said Kathleen McElroy, director of the UT School of Journalism.
At the Chronicle and other newspapers, editors do not generally ask to see the phone numbers and email addresses of people quoted in a story. Trust between reporter and editor goes bone-deep, but it is earned, not assumed.
Editors keep a skeptical eye on younger reporters, and over time reporters either prove themselves trustworthy or they lose their job.
“I have to trust the reporter,” Schwartz said.
Bill Adair, Duke University journalism professor and director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, said editors should not be expected to verify that a reporter’s named sources are real.
“Every editor has done what I have done, which is to Google someone quoted to make sure the name is spelled correctly,” said Adair, who worked for 24 years as a reporter and editor and created the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check website PolitiFact. “But I don’t think the responsibility for that basic thing rests with the editor; it is a basic responsibility of a reporter.”
Kelly McBride is senior vice president and ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a national media instructional and resource center. She said mid-level newspaper editors ought to know how reporters are getting their work done. It’s less a matter of trust and more a matter of involvement in the process.
“Where did you find this guy? Do you have any other quotes from him? Where do you go to get man-on-the-street quotes? Are you using social media? This is the editor’s responsibility,” McBride said. “Because when something’s going great you can reinforce that good work — that’s how you can help reporters grow. And when something’s going badly you can step in.”
About the reporter:
David Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with four decades of experience, was hired by the Chronicle to conduct this investigation. He has spent most of his career covering war and the U.S. military, reporting from abroad and from the Pentagon, State Department and the White House. He does not know Mike Ward and has not worked as a journalist in Texas. He now lives in San Antonio.