Just the “correct” facts, ma’am

The Lansing State Journal should take a lesson from Sgt. Joe Friday’s investigative notebook. webbJack Webb’s character in the 1950s radio and TV show “Dragnet,” is credited with coining the phrase, “Just the facts, ma’am,” which he would use to get to the heart of the matter with women he was interviewing for crime investigations. (Ironically, Sgt. Friday never uttered that phrase — his “All we want are the facts, ma’am” was altered in a spoof of the character and the spoof line caught on instead of the original statement.)

The Lansing State Journal managed to stumble when handling a news story recently about a special ice cream flavor being made at Michigan State University’s Dairy Store.

It all started via Twitter posts from people announcing that “Final Four Fudge Dribble,” a limited edition flavor, was being made and sold at the Dairy Store. They said it was awesome and encouraged people to go get some. One tweet included a picture of the delectable dessert. Another tweet included a link to a press release from MSU explaining what all the hoopla was about (pun intended). That tweet was then retweeted — Twitter’s version of forwarding — complete with the press release link. The State msu-ice-creamJournal apparently caught wind of this and decided to run a news story about it.

Unfortunately, that’s where the LSJ’s trouble began. It’s a mystery exactly how they got the story or what their source was. But the article had an error that could have been avoided if someone would have checked the facts as thoroughly as the good Joe Friday.

Here’s the article from Wednesday, April 1, 2009:

Beginning Friday, Spartan fans can get Final Four Fudge Dribble ice cream at the Michigan State University Dairy Store. The vanilla ice cream with fudge swirl sprinkled with little chocolate-covered malted milk “basketballs” is being made on campus today. The Spartans men’s basketball team plays the University of Connecticut Saturday at Ford Field.

“I was just inspired by the basketball teams,” said John Partridge, associate professor of food science and human nutrition and faculty adviser of the dairy food complex. “I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something here, and we can have a lot of fun with ice cream.’”

The dairy store will make 100 half gallons and 45 3-gallon tubs (for scooping) in the manufacturing center in Anthony Hall, next to the store on Farm Lane between Shaw Lane and Wilson Road. The ice creams will be available both in half-gallons and by the scoop.

And here’s the press release:

EAST LANSING, Mich. – In a move to ensure the Spartans will own not only the hearts, but also the stomachs of basketball fans, the Michigan State University Dairy Store today announces a confectionery slam dunk. Fans, meet Final Four Fudge Dribble ice cream. The concoction of vanilla ice cream with fudge swirl sprinkled with little chocolate-covered malted milk “basketballs” is being made on campus today and available at the MSU Dairy Store beginning Friday morning.

“I was just inspired by the basketball teams,” said John Partridge, associate professor of food science and human nutrition and faculty adviser of the dairy food complex. “I thought, ‘we’ve go to do something here, and we can have a lot of fun with ice cream.’”

They’ll be making 100 half gallons and 45 3-gallon tubs (for scooping) in the manufacturing center in Anthony Hall, next to the Dairy Store. That’s part of the secret of MSU’s popular ice cream, what Partridge calls “short chain of custody.” That means MSU ice cream doesn’t get all stressed out with temperature fluctuations that can damage ice cream. Or, in other words, it’s like the MSU basketball teams. Great because it stays cool.

Ice cream facts:

  • MSU Dairy Store is in Anthony Hall on Farm Lane between Shaw Lane and Wilson Road.
  • Store hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
  • Available both in half-gallons and by the scoop.
  • Last themed ice cream: Sesquicentennial Swirl – white cake batter-flavored ice cream with green frosting swirl and chunks of white and green cake.

So what, you ask? Don’t newspapers cut and paste information from press releases all the time? Isn’t that the dream of most public relations practitioners, to get their words verbatim into a news story? Sure it happens, and of course we enjoy seeing our work copied in a newspaper. That’s not the problem. The problem is the press release was dated March 31, 2005.

Does it matter that people thought the ice cream flavor wouldn’t be available until Friday instead of Wednesday? Does it matter that the quote referenced the basketball teams because in 2005 both the men’s and women’s teams made the Final Four? Maybe not in the grand scheme of life, but a factual misstep by the newspaper like this is a big deal. Mistakes happen and no news outlet is immune. Still, every time it happens, there’s another chink in the armor of credibility and, before long, people start wondering if anything they hear from that news outlet can be trusted.

It’s a sad sign of the times, I suppose, as newspapers cut reporting staff, start relying on other people to do their work, start spreading news from the Internet and spend more time worrying about being first rather than being accurate.

Had the Lansing State Journal actually done some reporting on the story, they would have probably called the contact listed on the press release to get an original quote and gather something unique for their article. Had someone done that, they would have found out the contact doesn’t work for MSU anymore. That would have led to a few more questions, a few more uncovered facts and, ta-da!, an accurate story.

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3 comments on “Just the “correct” facts, ma’am

  1. Wow. Good catch. I’ve been a critic of the LSJ for sometime. I’m amazed at how bad a newspaper in a state capitol is. It’s been when I turn to the State News for updated, local news.

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  2. Ari can’t take all the credit, it was actually me who figured it out-he just decided to take it public. I couldn’t believe the lazy, shoddy reporting going on at LSJ. They wonder why they’re losing readers?

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  3. Pingback: MSU Dairy Store - Revisited « Mid-Michigan Dining

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