Journalists love online public databases, which allow them to look into all sorts of relationships (status with the comptroller of public accounts, political donations, property tax assessments, etc).
Of course, there's nothing to stop non-journalists from checking out those same databases, and sometimes it can be interesting to throw names into those sorts of databases and see what pops up.
So, that's a little background to set up my finally getting a chance to read last week's Houston Press story* on alleged sudden-acceleration problems with the Toyota Prius**.
The story leads with complaints about the car from one Bobette Riner, who apparently has an arbitration case pending over the car. That name seemed familiar, and sure enough it popped up in a few past Houston Press pieces. Plugging it into a few more searches turned up a shared address with Richard Connelly. The longtime Houston Press staffer.
No relationship was mentioned in the story, which seemed liked a glaring omission, so I emailed the author of the story. A comical series of emails followed, which the Houston Press Hair Balls blog rushed to document here yesterday. PLEASE go read Rich Connelly's fine account and come back. We'll wait.
I didn't take offense at the Press editor's email*** (really mild, to be honest), but was still a little confused at the notion that the relationship "probably" should have been disclosed. This is hardly a great scandal (or even a minor one really), but it should have been disclosed, if only to keep people who can be "a pain" from nagging about why a consumer advocacy report wouldn't disclose such a relationship. The publication's onetime media critic concedes as much in the comments at that entertaining post at Hair Balls:
I can only address the last question. My wife had the unintended-acceleration problem and found other people on the web who said they had also experienced it.
I brought up the idea at one of our weekly story meetings, saying it might be worth it for someone to look into.
I then had nothing to do with the story until I read it after the issue hit the streets. And I assumed the connection would have been in it, and it should have been, and from what I can tell it would have been if anyone had thought of it.
Right. It's surprising professional journalists overlooked making that connection in a story that ran across so many Village Voice corporate "alt" weeklies, but mistakes happen. We will now move on to being a pain (but less of a pain than this commenter!) on other topics.
* The story also appeared in only slightly reworked fashion across the Village Voice corporate "alt" weekly media empire.
** Readers of my personal blog know that I have an unhealthy fascination with local instances of "sudden acceleration" and that I'm a skeptic.
*** To the contrary, that email and her followup reply to me made me laugh. Margaret Downing, I would like to buy you a drink (or several) one of these nights! What do you say?