Fighting fake news from within: The Houston Chronicle investigates one of its own former reporters

When a veteran reporter was accused of making up dozens of sources used in his articles, the Houston Chronicle set about investigating itself.

Here's how a major U.S. newspaper responded to allegations that one of its reporters was inventing sources

The Houston Chronicle retracted eight stories and posted corrections for dozens of others after work of veteran reporter came under scrutiny. (David J. Phillip/Canadian Press)

Mike Ward was no rookie. He already had decades of reporting experience. That's in part why the Houston Chronicle hired him to run their bureau in Austin, Texas in 2014.

It's also one of the reasons they were stunned when another reporter in the newsroom questioned whether quotes from average Texans in some of Ward's stories were real. In effect, one reporter was alleging another was deliberately reporting fake news.

"We immediately started within our newsroom to check a limited number of stories to see if that indeed were the case," said acting executive editor Steve Riley. He said they also asked Ward to contact some of the people he'd quoted to demonstrate that they were real.

"We gave him a little time to do that. Nothing resulted and he offered to resign."

Faced with questions about how long this might have been going on, the newspaper turned the query into an investigation, hiring Pulitzer-prize winning reporter David Wood and pairing him up with two other staff members to look into their former colleague.

"They went out and looked for the everyday people in Mike's stories for the entire four years that he had worked for us. That was 744 bylines," Riley said. "And, as it resulted and as we reported last week, there were just over 100 sources that we could not confirm or verify."

Watch The Investigators with Diana Swain: 

When a veteran reporter was accused of faking sources, the Houston Chronicle set about investigating itself. Diana talks to the paper’s interim editor Steve Riley about how they’re rebuilding trust in the newsroom. Watch ‘The Investigators with Diana Swain’ Thursdays at 7:00 pm on CBC Television; Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network. 5:02

Riley is quick to point out the newspaper can't say with certainty that the sources and their quotes were made up.  But, given extensive online and database searches, no trace of them could be found. In a story and an editor's note published last week, the newspaper said it had fully retracted eight stories and posted corrections for more than 60 others.

The editor's note said in part: "These are challenging times for our country, and for journalism. That makes it all the more important that readers trust that we will ferret out the truth, even if it concerns ourselves."

Past examples fake reporting

It's certainly not the first time a reporter has been accused of making up quotes. It's not even the first time this month. On Wednesday, Playboy Magazine in Germany fully retracted an article written by freelance journalist Marcel Anders about composer Ennio Morricone.  

The magazine unreservedly apologized to its readers "for failing to save you from this farce of an interview."

The made-up quotes apparently included criticisms of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Morricone won an Oscar for the musical score he created for Tarantino's film, The Hateful Eight. He was quoted referring to the director as a "cretin" who makes "derivative movies." Morricone claims he said no such thing.

The most famous example of journalists inventing material must be that of Jason Blair, the New York Times reporter found to have made up not only quotes but extraordinary details in his 2003 reporting on a string of sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C. area. He was fired and later wrote a book about substance abuse and a diagnosis of bipolar disease he believes contributed to his actions.

Veteran reporter and former Austin bureau chief Mike Ward joined the paper in 2014. (The Houston Chronicle)

Riley said Ward has refused to respond to the newspaper's questions about why so many people he quoted don't appear to exist and said it's simply not a question anyone would have thought to ask him in the past.

"It's just not an average ordinary thing for us to look at a reporter and say, give me the phone number and the email of this person you quoted from Tomball, Texas because we're going to make sure they exist," Riley said.

At a time when journalists are fighting both allegations of fake news and the spectre of those who try to hoax the media into printing false information, Riley admits it's been hard on the Chronicle's staff to discover the fake material was coming from inside the newsroom.  

He said restoring trust between the newspaper and its readers started with being transparent about what was learned. Restoring trust among colleagues may be a lengthier process.

"We're still having discussions about what we want to do going forward," the editor said. "But it's safe to say that we will be making sure that reporters collect and keep the contact information for everybody they use as sources in their news reporting."


Also this week on The Investigators with Diana Swain, Anu Singh and Makda Ghebreslassie talk about their discovery for CBC News: Marketplace that food couriers for home delivery apps often don't have equal protection under workplace compensation coverage. Watch The Investigators with Diana Swain Thursdays at 7:00 pm on CBC Television; Saturdays at 9:30 pm ET and Sundays at 5:30 pm ET on CBC News Network.

About the Author

Diana Swain

Multi-award-winning journalist Diana Swain is the senior investigative correspondent for CBC News and host of The Investigators on CBC News Network.